Orange cheese in America

I often come back to the colors of dairy products as a tidy example of human nature. It was observed that when cows ate richer grass higher in carotene in the summer, their milk took on a yellow-orange hue, and when concentrated down, the richest cheeses appeared light orange. This is also why butter from grass-fed cows is usually yellow. Realizing cheese could be colored with annatto, the extract of seeds from the achiote tree, industrious dairy farmers began dyeing cheese year-round to imitate the more nutritious, better-tasting summer cheeses. Naturally they went overboard, past any color found in nature, to the ultra-orange color of Cheddars and American cheese that we see today. In a similar history of margarine, now known to be loaded with trans fats from hydrogenation of vegetable oils, we made a food product that looked like butter, but was stark white until yellow food coloring was added, in increasingly neon saturation, passing it off as the real thing for so long that people believe butter is normally bright yellow.

Now when cheese or butter are white or a natural creamy color, Americans are more likely to ask why they aren’t the characteristic yellows and oranges we’ve come to expect in dairy products. That is to say, we’ve become so used to the way things have gotten through distortion in the aim of greater profits, that we’ve forgotten how they are supposed to be.

To me, this is the problem with human nature. We take our creativity, intelligence, energy, and industriousness, and instead of using it to help one another, we trick each other for profit, stretching materials further to cut down on costs, manufacturing sensationalistic news rather than report honestly on global events, and trapping healthy, beautiful bodies in soul-sucking jobs because we’ve outsourced all the meaningful work they can do to others overseas who enslave and exploit their workers on our behalf.

What if we used all that ingenuity and cleverness for good? What if egalitarianism were not idealistic, but an expectation? What if we prioritized getting everyone safe, sheltered, fed, healthy, and with a secure future before we dug into nationalism or making profits for billionaires? What if instead of industrial farming, we could go back to a semi-agrarian economy, and all the out-of-work hard-working and good-hearted people living in cities and suburbs could work a plot of land if they’d like and be paid what their time is actually worth? What if housing were actually affordable? What if we didn’t subsidize food corporations, and instead used that money to make real, organic produce affordable? What if we eliminated our dependency on fossil fuels so we could stop destabilizing entire regions of the world to maintain access to oil? What if we spent even a fraction of our military budget on investing in education, paying good teachers what they’re worth and helping students find meaning and joy in learning instead of just a path to a job?

I am aware that magical thinking is one of my greatest indulgences, but there isn’t actually any reason why we should be trapped in this economic and sociopolitical system, except that it’s what we’ve become used to, and we’ve forgotten how things are supposed to be.

A shocking amount of the people I’ve spoken to since the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week have sought to justify or excuse the murders of black men, saying a variety of absurd things ranging from, “Well we don’t know all the facts yet” to “I realize more black men are killed than white, but maybe it’s because more black men are committing crimes that cause the police to intervene in the first place.” That’s actually not the worst of it, but I can’t even wrap my head around the others, like labeling Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. Most heartbreaking is the tone of normalcy I keep encountering, the complicit acceptance of racism and inequality as just a thing that happens, in America, in 2016.

We’ve become so used to institutionalized racism and lethal injustice for black Americans that I fear we are forgetting how things are supposed to be.

Maybe, I think, in the moments where I am ready to sink under the waves of cynicism and give up, the police were only ever around to protect property and the financial interests of our oligarchy. Maybe the military and the whole government isn’t for us at all, and this whole charade is a glorified way to keep rich people secure, with all the rest of us benefitting by happenstance, if we’re in the right place at the right time. Maybe I am deluding myself in the belief that my congressman (or his staff) cares at all what I think or have to say, however frequently or passionately I write to him, because I am not an NRA lobbyist group contributing to a reelection campaign in his party. Maybe corporations are people. Maybe my fellow Americans truly are so absorbed in their own material concerns that they really do care more about saving a few dollars a year in taxes than helping others and the environment. With our attitude of selfishness and tuning out with mass entertainment, maybe this is the America we deserve: fluorescent orange cheese and fake butter.

But I also think that my heart breaking is evidence I still care, and the pain and sorrow we feel in weeks like the past few is proof we are human and capable of love and compassion. It is so tempting to be jaded and cynical and tune out what’s happening to other people in the world as long as our favorite show comes on television that night and isn’t preempted by a special report on the news, but we can do better. We can use our vast resources, talents, and abilities to make real, lasting change that improves the lives of many and not just ourselves in the short term. We can act from our nobler nature, instead of from fear, isolationism, or all the other names we use to justify cowardice and self-interest.

I’ve been having a crisis of conscience over the past few years because I felt I was feeding the machine of materialism and greed, and I’m trying to change my entire life to do better by people, animals, and the earth. I can’t get used to the way things are, and in some primordial instinctive way, I remember how things are supposed to be. I think we all do. This week has shown me once again how urgent and necessary this change has been.

Open for Business!

I’ve completely redesigned and relaunched my art website, and the Shop is now open for business, selling paintings, photos, and prints.

I wrote a post over on my Studio Blog that describes the moment I knew I needed to pursue art full-time, as well as a bit about what this launch means to me. I still have a really, really lot of work to do in the coming days and weeks, but I am so happy to finally share what I’ve been working on and where my heart’s at.

Much more to come!

The Objectifying Compliment

I don’t think I’m alone in greeting the unofficial start of summer with slight trepidation. In addition to all the lovely things about the warm weather and proliferation of outdoor activities now possible, summer makes it all but impossible to avoid putting one’s body on display. As a woman already loathe to be objectified and cat-called, I have a twinge of discomfort every time I leave my house in a sundress because I know it’s literally a matter of minutes before I am deflated and reminded that while I see myself as a person with thoughts and valuable experiences to offer the world, I become walking genitalia to many men. Something about summer exaggerates the tendency to objectify women, and the overall amount of visible flesh seems to invite much more commentary and criticism than in other seasons.

I thought it was just my own prudish hang-up, but it seems like every day I see more and more articles like this one about women being objectified every minute of every day and the downright predatory behavior that becomes normalized in the summer. The solution isn’t sartorial, and it’s not women’s fault. For every one example a man might point out of a woman seeking attention by dressing or acting a certain way, I can easily find thousands of women who just want to go to work and home and not have to talk about their breasts that day. I’ve written about the ripple effect of objectifying microaggressions before, and now that I am working out of my home I am both relieved of the constant, daily barrage of comments and less guarded or inoculated when they do happen. At least it’s mostly strangers?

A boyfriend once explained that it’s a biological imperative for heterosexual men to look at women’s bodies, and that when more of it shows, you notice it more. I agreed that at a certain size, no matter how many cleavage-concealing camisoles and cardigans you wear over dresses, or how baggy one’s clothes, breasts are just an unavoidably obvious part of torso topography… but the same could be said for a penis, which is sort of the definition of projecting off the body. Somehow, I countered, I was able to speak with men in bathing suits or running shorts without staring at their crotches the whole time, and at work I could be around an attractive colleague without constantly checking out his butt or imagining laying my head on his shoulders or spending half of my conversations with him distracted by picturing him naked.

“Yes, but as a man when you see a beautiful woman,” my boyfriend claimed, “you see the woman first, before you see your coworker.” I want him to be wrong, but I kind of get it. We have uniquely visceral responses to visual stimuli, and sometimes it’s involuntary. But that doesn’t mean it has to be shared. I think that’s the point where it becomes objectifying, especially when examining the reasons why men speak to women about their bodies when and how they do.

Lorenzo Lotto, Venus and Cupid, c. 1526, oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

I was thinking about the lament of men who want to pay compliments but don’t want to seem predatory this weekend when a woman wearing a beautiful dress was standing by my mother and me outside of the Met before a ballet. It was clear she liked her dress and had taken care to put herself together nicely. When she turned toward us, my mom said, “Excuse me, I just want to tell you we’ve been admiring your dress, and it’s lovely!” Two other women next to us piped up and said, “We were just saying the same thing!” The woman in the dress smiled, thanked us, said it was new and she really liked it, chatted for a moment about the print, and we all wished each other a nice day.

I thought about what made that exchange pleasant, compared with the way I’d felt an hour earlier when a guy talked about my skirt in a way that made me wish I could Purell my brain. For one thing, none of us wanted to have sex with this woman (as far as I know) so the intent really was just to compliment her style. We didn’t talk about her body or the fit of her dress, no one assessed whether it was flattering or not, and we weren’t passive-aggressively underscoring a power dynamic with approval or disapproval of her appearance (I’ll come back to that point). No one asked where she got it or introduced any economic points about quality or cost. We just stopped at the compliment and, I hope, gave her a smile and a good feeling as she went on to enjoy her day.

I talked with my mother a bit about how sometimes compliments can make you feel worse, and we discussed the article linked above. I mentioned an older woman who never failed to compliment my outfits or shoes when she saw me, but always did it in a way that made me feel like I’d just barely passed her approval. It didn’t ever feel like a true compliment, rather that she was making me aware that she was always looking and judging. Friends and boyfriends too have (intentionally or not) fallen into paying objectifying compliments, where I feel more slapped in the face than admired. I know I’ve done it to other people, said one too many too-specific things about the fit of clothes or how flattering an outfit was instead of just saying they looked great. I always feel terrible afterwards because it’s never my intent to make people feel bad with a compliment. But that is not true for many people.

© AMC, Mad Men – “You can’t dress the way you do and expect… You can’t have it both ways.”
“So what you’re saying is I don’t dress the way you do because I don’t look like you, and that’s very, very true.”
(Also this article is a good read. I miss Mad Men.)

I’ve had male coworkers and bosses pay objectifying compliments more times than I can count, especially when they were uncertain of the power dynamic. To put me in my place they talked almost compulsively about how “pretty” everything I wore was, as if I were six years old and twirling for their approval, or spoke at length about how flattering a dress or hairstyle was. Frequently vendors would talk to me like we were in a bar and they were trying their hardest to pick me up, and I wondered if they would talk to the physicist heading our team the same way about his tie or how nicely his jeans fit. In my younger days and when my bosses didn’t respect me either, I blamed myself – I must be acting too childishly to be taken seriously – but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. The comments were meant to objectify me in the guise of a compliment, and the intent was to take away my dignity.

I mentioned this issue to a supervisor once, saying it made me feel belittled and uncomfortable that every time I interacted with someone he talked almost exclusively about my clothes and appearance, and she dismissed it as paranoia, saying he was probably just trying to be collegial (he wasn’t) and that I wasn’t being harassed because he was gay (it wasn’t ever about liking me). I said I’d prefer if he didn’t say anything to me at all than if he talked about my appearance every day, and she said I should imagine it was another coworker, who was a friend, paying the compliment – would I react so negatively? The clear difference was that this friend never paid creepy, power-dynamic objectifying compliments, rather infrequent statements of, “Those are cool shoes” or, “I like your earrings,” and it never came with the full-body dressing-down of approval or disapproval, reminding me of my economic status compared to his, or belittling effect of underscoring the primacy of my appearance to my actions every time he saw me.

Gustave Courbet, Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, c.1865-6. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Even when we try to be supportive and empowering, we still cut women down. My cousin is a bad-ass, confident, awesome young woman who speaks her mind. I won’t get too much into it because it’s her story to tell, but she recently spoke up about an event poster that made a joke about date rape / drugging your date, and she called it out for what it was. A friend of the event organizer sent her a private message body-shaming her in a really disgusting way, and when she reposted it, it became clear that he was messaging every woman who said anything in a similar way, followed with a hollow apology unknowingly acknowledging that he was using attacks on women’s appearances to try to shut them up.

I was so proud of my cousin for speaking up and refusing to let someone take away her voice, and then I started cringing at all the other comments rolling in on her post, reassuring her how beautiful she was. I know that the people complimenting her love and adore her the way I do, and they wanted to encourage and support her, but she was never asking for validation that she was beautiful (she is, but that is besides the point) or healthy at her weight (same) or “still sexy” no matter what a body-shaming creep on the internet says. The more I read, the more I felt it was two sides of the same coin – in showing their support and love, they were objectifying her just as much as the body-shamer was. Although they were talking about her appearance positively and trying to say he was wrong, they were still making the conversation about her and her appearance, not about how important it is to speak up for women’s dignity and stand against rape culture.

It can feel like a no-win situation. I know that my father loves and respects me as a person, that he has proclaimed himself my biggest fan, and that it breaks his heart when I am mistreated in life. And yet, occasionally when we are talking he’ll interrupt me to say I look beautiful, that I should wear that outfit to the bar in my neighborhood and see guys line up to talk with me, or that my hair looks pretty. I know there is nothing but love in his heart, but I also know he wouldn’t interrupt my brother to compliment him that way, no matter how handsome he looks.

I don’t believe people always mean to objectify women as much as we do, but we’re socialized in a way that still very much treats women as decorative objects and products. I remember when I was learning about eating disorders and reading about the suggestion that images in fashion and advertising affect women’s self-image (duh, of course they do) I wondered if the bigger problem is the way they reinforce men’s tendencies to objectify women and hold them to a certain warped standard. At age 12, I could see how ridiculous it was to idealize and glamorize a pre-pubescent body type for adult women, but the leering grown men at the beach who were staring at my body couldn’t. I still can’t wrap my head around the adult women who were openly jealous and started treating me like I was trying to steal their husbands the summer I developed breasts.

By my 30s, I have now had boyfriends offering advice on exfoliation, easing pain from waxing, ways I should adjust my diet or exercise to improve muscle tone, which swimsuit styles they think would best flatter my figure, and so many other insipid and shallow topics it feels like I am dating Cosmo. Why do men think I want to talk about my appearance with them or hear all their thoughts on how I could improve it? Is it their fault they have so many opinions on my clothes, shoes, hair, skin, teeth, fitness level, etc., or are they just part of a distorted, objectifying global conversation that treats women this way?

In just about every television show or movie, it’s shown as romantic and sexy when men pay women objectifying compliments. And when it’s a welcome advance (i.e. coming from a handsome man perceived as non-threatening and a viable partner) women don’t always respond negatively, myself included. I like when men who are sincerely interested in me pay me compliments, and I like when the guys I’m dating find me attractive and say so, but only if it’s included with interest in my thoughts, sense of humor, kindness, talents, generosity of spirit, or whatever other qualities they find attractive. I lose interest pretty much immediately in men who objectify me, but I see a lot of women who are happy to be objectified when it’s by a handsome and successful man they’d like to date or marry. It’s two sides of the same problem, and it’s hard to be vigilant about objectification if it seems harmless.

If we allow ourselves to be treated as objects – and more precisely, commodities – then we are sealing our fate as second-class citizens. I think it is time to stop doing it to our friends and daughters with objectifying compliments and to teach men how to talk respectfully with women as equals. It’s totally possible to compliment someone’s style or beauty without taking away her dignity, if the intent is pure. We need to take away the power dynamic of objectification by calling it out for what it is, and I think men would do well to examine their true intents when they’re inclined to sidle up to a woman and talk about how her body looks in a dress. I also think we need to stop supporting companies that use objectification in their advertising, full-on. Really, we’re long overdue to insist that women be treated with the respect we deserve.

Walking Lightly

Music has a tendency to find me when I need it. I can’t count the amount of times a song has come up on shuffle, and it was like sunlight unexpectedly bursting into a room. Or when a band I love puts out a new album and I rediscover a song on an older album. I find I am suddenly in exactly the right state to fall in love with it, and it becomes a new favorite that acts like a beacon to pull me past whatever I’m going through.

That was the case a few years ago when I mentioned José González‘s brilliant album Veneer on a date (seriously, don’t you want to lean your head on someone’s shoulder, look at the stars, and listen to him sing “Heartbeats“??). When I got home I excitedly listened to his band Junip‘s new album. The song “Walking Lightly” came on, and it was like an auditory cathexis – all other sound and experience dissolved into soft focus and there was just this intensely beautiful song opening my heart and filling it with light and a sense that everything would be okay. It was the soft blanket wrapped around me when I most needed it, and I listened to it around the clock, hoping my coworkers didn’t realize it was literally on repeat for hour-long stretches sometimes. I saw Junip perform at (le) poisson rouge about a week before my beautiful Smokey died, when I knew he was nearing the end but still couldn’t accept it. I think that concert and seeing that song get put together live is one of the only things that preserved my sanity during that time, and it gave me whatever it was I needed to keep functioning and get through losing my honey.

Not surprisingly, it broke my heart to listen to Junip for years afterwards, no matter how much I still loved their music. I think everyone goes through that with the songs that get them through a loss or break-up, and it’s a tremendous feeling to be able to listen to them again and see that enough time has passed to have healed some, where the hurt has turned from an acute stab to a dull ache; it reminds you that eventually it will fade back into pure love.

One of my absolute favorite things to do is walk around and think. I recently read a new-to-me article from 2014 discussing some of the health and psychological benefits of purposeless walking, and I thought about how important walking and running is for clearing my head, processing experiences, working out artistic ideas, and reconnecting with the present tense. When I really need to mull something over, I can only effectively do it in motion, even though I don’t completely follow the prescribed method in that article (or the countless others I’ve read about running). I tend to listen to music because New York can be relentlessly loud and full of conversations I don’t want to overhear. Also because I am obsessed with music, but you knew that part already.

The other day I was in a specific kind of terrible pain that precluded running, but I knew I would feel better if I walked a few miles in the sunshine. I went to the amazing track in my neighborhood that’s across the street from Yankee Stadium so I could just get lost in my head. I used to despise track running, feeling like I was on a 1/4-mile long hamster wheel, but there is enough general activity at this one (this time it was an excellent soccer tournament) that I don’t even mind routinely being mistaken for a high school or college student by guys eager to show off how much taller and fitter they are. I really like the Bronx.

Walking around and around, I started thinking about the non-linear shape of time, picturing the layered loops on the MapMyRun app as a metaphor for our daily routines and the repetitions we make over time. “Walking Lightly” came on my shuffle, and I started to think through some of the experiences I wish I’d handled more gracefully in the moment and the way those missteps reverberated forward through time, often irrevocably damaging friendships and relationships. I also thought about past hurts, and the way holding onto grudges kept hurting me every time I thought about them with anger. As Salman Rushdie put it in his latest book:

“In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”

I’d read an article earlier that day that someone had posted about the health benefits of forgiveness (apologies if you’re the one who posted it and I’m not crediting you – I really can’t remember how I got to it). Like a lot of people, I have a pretty firm policy against dating people who speak badly about their exes or parents, and I am always uneasy when friends still carry anger toward former friends or acquaintances. And yet, I am weapons-grade stubborn about holding grudges and I know it takes me a problematically long time to forgive and move on, especially when I know the person who hurt me doesn’t feel any remorse. I did a little mental inventory and realized, yeah, I still have some stuff, and I don’t want to keep carrying it anymore.

© Dr. Joerg M. Harms, Riboworld

Time isn’t a neat spiral or coil moving cleanly upwards or directly toward something. It’s a blobby, amorphous tangle of experiences that are shaped and colored differently as we go back and forth through them. I picture it like a complex protein. We think we are just shuffling along with minimal baggage, and then our secondary alpha-helix loops back around on a moment from long ago. Memory is a creative process, and if the past emotions haven’t been resolved they stick out and radiate energy that demands attention each time we remember them, like repeatedly stubbing a hurt toe. If the experiences are ugly or upsetting enough, they act like intramolecular forces that keep us reattaching and tangling ourselves back up in the same emotion every time, grasping that hot coal and getting burned over and over.

Memory is a strange form of transportation, and I think your mind really does bring you back and forth through time. It’s like this Tweet that describes the surreality of reading a book as, “you stare at marked slices of tree for hours on end hallucinating vividly.” If the mind truly is traveling back to that time and place that hurt, why do we feel compelled to keep reliving the painful memories? Is the brief satisfaction of a hateful grudge more important than letting the mind move around in peace?

I started to picture an alternative, of smoothing over the rough edges in my past by seeking understanding and compassion (however much I’m inclined to say it’s undeserved), and I made the decision to really forgive and move on, for my own sake, and to hope the people that I have hurt can do the same. I realize the only way out is through, so I need to find another way of feeling.

I believe that if I am careful and walk lightly, my amorphous blob of experience can stop tripping me up and flattening down into a terse spiral. Instead I can start stretching out, looking up instead of back, and grow in previously unimaginable directions. It is completely up to me to fill my own conscious experiences with light, to let the music back in, and stop giving the bad stuff so much power, until eventually it loses its sharpness and fades.

From here forward, I intend to be created anew with what I love.

We are who we are

I was thinking about my Grandma Wanda yesterday (as I often do) while I was walking through City Hall Park admiring the bluebells. I heard her voice come out of my mouth, probably even in her accent, exclaiming, “Oh look at you!” as I crouched down to admire their delicate flowers more closely and snap a photo. They were such a lovely burst of spring, standing fresh and happy on an otherwise gray, uncharacteristically cold and drizzly day. It was utterly charming, and like always, my Gram was with me again.

My grandmother was an incredible person. She was highly educated and well-read, a lover of opera, classical music, art of all styles, a scholar in human development and child psychology, and she actually enjoyed talking about art history and cultural anthropology with my grandfather (who apparently used to talk her ear off about Roman mosaics just like I did). She had an abundant intellectual curiosity and was the owner of a truly remarkable, well-rounded, and uniquely fascinating mind. In spite of all this, she seemed constitutionally incapable of putting on airs or acting pretentious – she was, I think, universally appreciated as a genuine, kind, authentic person with a radiantly warm heart. She laughed unabashedly (everyone who knew her can probably hear that great laugh reading this), she spoke her mind, she was intensely observant and considered other people all the time, and she was just a joy to be with.

One of my favorite things about her, and the way she has inspired so much of my painting and my whole art history thesis, was her all-consuming love and wonder for nature, especially the way things grew. She was, at her core, an Ohio farm girl, an avid gardener who loved nurturing and watching living things flourish under her care.

(Wow, do I miss her.)

One year my family was brainstorming Christmas gifts for her, and we were so pleased with ourselves for landing on an elegantly potted bonsai tree. She loved gardening, but the state of her knees at the time and the overwhelming fertility of her yard in Hawai’i was making it too difficult to manage plants outside. They hired a gardener, and she often said how she missed puttering around with the plants, so we thought it would be brilliant to get her a mini tree indoors that she could nurture, tend to, and enjoy without it becoming unruly. At first she was charmed, as we expected, and amazed that a tree would come in such a tiny, delicate form.

A few months later on a phone call we asked how her bonsai was doing, expecting to hear how maybe she’d decided on a shape she’d like to trim it into or how she enjoyed talking to it. “Oh, it’s the cutest little thing. I love it,” she said cheerfully, then added, “And I’m happy to see it’s getting so big already!” We all fell apart laughing because, after all, when you grow up on a farm you nurture plants so they will grow. Of course it wouldn’t make sense to prune her bonsai back or fuss around with limiting growth, and as much as she could intellectually appreciate and enjoy the bonsai book we gave her and the beautiful philosophy behind it, she was always going to be the Ohio farm girl who liked to see things grow.

We are who we are.

I think a lot about personal development and growth, especially as I am switching gears in my career and making a lot of changes in the rest of my life and daily habits to best support it (also just, I am making my life better). I was always fascinated by the phases of child development, like my grandmother was, and the psychological theories of personality and existential philosophy that I studied in undergrad. Increasingly, I am inclined to believe that we do have core selves, sets of intuitions and instincts that we bring with us at birth, which make us the only iteration of ourselves that ever will be. These senses are either encouraged and nurtured, like my parents regularly asking me to draw things for them or buying me bigger paper when my drawings extended off the page, up the woodwork, and all over my bedroom walls; or they are suppressed and discouraged, like a parent cutting off a fugue of creativity if paint gets spilled or it makes a mess.

Like a lot of people (maybe everyone?) I spent most of my formative years being socialized to behave and seem normal, then most of my 20s moving away from the things that made me special. It is the child or young adult’s initial tendency to respond mistrustfully or negatively to things that are aberrant, even if they’re exciting and intriguing. We learn cynicism. If you get enough weird looks for speaking your mind or get ostracized enough for being unusual, you may eventually learn to keep some things to yourself for the sake of having friends and conforming to expectations, and unfortunately that often includes hiding some of the best and most interesting qualities people have to offer. Imagine if we could all just be weirdos from the start.

I think by the time I became an adult, I gave off a pervasive sense of not really liking myself, and it’s not surprising that I attracted so many people who were all too happy to talk down to me and put me in my place. I have never been normal, not even close, and I’ve always known that. It makes me even more grateful for the unusually kind, good-hearted people who have slipped through my defenses and treated me well in spite of myself, either because they are just that wonderful and evolved as humans or because they recognized I was stumbling around getting in my own way and found some of the good stuff I was so invested in hiding. I think we should remember to treasure the people who like us for who we are and return the kindness to others.

It’s frustrating that as adults we spend so much time talking about things that we aren’t truly passionate about or fascinated by because that’s the more polite, socially acceptable style of small talk that we’re all acculturated into. I’m not sure when we learn that we’re not supposed to have strong opinions or think critically in casual conversation, but I really enjoy talking with people who have gotten past the sort of corporate / professional reservation that permeates American society and just say what they’re thinking as they’re thinking about it in unguarded, spontaneous, and sometimes slightly high-wire-without-a-net open conversation. It takes a surprising amount of trust and courage to just be who you are, to risk the fear of having your true self rejected, but I think it’s the only way we can be happy at a soul-level.

Perhaps it’s a bit like unshackling oneself from a constricting pen. We spend all these years learning how to fit into the box, follow the rules, measure ourselves by other people’s standards (typically valuing consumerism and lifestyles that are profitable for corporations), and denying the things that make us who we are at our core. I think there is a critical choice, where we either believe the impression we’re doing of who we think we’re supposed to be, or we have a David Bynre flip, “This is not my beautiful wife!” and push the walls down. I think the denial of core self and inherent instincts is at the center of mid-life crises and general existential freak-outs. I know for sure it has always been at the heart of mine. So I am working on embracing my idiosyncrasy and trusting my instincts, accepting that I am who I am, and I am enjoying my version of my grandmother’s inner Ohio farm girl.

Last summer I posted an Instagram caption, “If I ever stop feeling enthralled by backlit leaves, I will know my heart’s gone dead.” There was actually a motherlode of self-knowledge and truth in that statement and a recognition of what matters to me. I’m so happy that more and more each day, I feel the same way I did when I was a toddler drawing in the sand or staring at light glinting in water. I know who I am and what I care about, just like everyone does if they look deeply and admit it to themselves, and it hasn’t really changed. The more I’ve experienced and learned about other people and the world, the more I’ve developed back into the person I’ve always been in my heart. We are who we are, and that’s what makes us beautiful. It feels like I am finally coming home.