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.