FEED: When I went to the Quiet Morning event at MoMA last week, I stood in front of this painting with an overflowing heart:
For a few years in the 1990s, I felt like this painting kept me going, kept me able to imagine that life could be worth living, that life might again have happiness and joy, that one day I might actually want to dance. They were hard years, uprooting years, dream-wrenching years, and I had a print of this painting on my bedroom wall so I could see it when I felt the most despair. Looking at it today, I remember my shattered heart and how that felt, and I remember the agony I felt in the times I felt this painting made a promise that couldn’t be delivered in my life — and then the fragile times I thought perhaps it could, after all. And now, the simple happiness I can feel in the wake of those years, to have survived them and to have danced. Whether you need hope, or know joy, this painting is a gift.
Here’s the gallery note for this painting: “In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.”
SEED: I want to talk about little-b bravery because I have been thinking about courage/bravery my whole life. (And in fact, one of the characters tattooed on my back is ‘courage,’ and I wrote a memoir chapter about it, which required me to think very carefully about the idea, the experience.) And then, whaddya know, Emily McDowell went and created a whole line of pins for people who exhibit bravery in their daily lives. I have bought four of them, one for me, one for my daughter, and two for women friends, because I agree with her: so many of us do brave things that will never receive the kind of attention that big noisy brave acts receive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave acts. And that’s why I want to set “little-b bravery” as my focus here. The big-b Bravery is inspirational, aspirational, admirational, worthy of the kind of honor it receives — like John Lewis and his life-long fight for the civil rights and honor and dignity of black people in this country. It was a Brave act, walking over the Selma Bridge and in fact he was beaten and kicked quite terribly by Alabama State Troopers, who fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die, and he just kept going. There is no doubt that was a Brave act, and it’s also true that he continues to do Brave and brave acts every day, in his quiet, dogged persistence. I’ll probably never do anything in my life that approaches his degree of courage.
But I am brave. I have been brave in my life, and in fact most days it takes courage to keep going. My friend Nancy told me that the focus of my memoirs must be “what it is to live with it,” because I survived all the nightmares of my childhood, and in a way that was the easier part. (In a way.) Then, it was so often literally a matter of life and death, and that has a way of focusing things. But living with it all, living with the fallout, living with the consequences, living with the loneliness of it, the despair of it, well, that takes a lot of courage, and there are absolutely days that I don’t have enough courage. I do not keep a gun in my house for all the reasons, but the most pointed one is that I am afraid I will use it on myself. On Christmas Day, I was so overcome that if I’d had a gun, I would’ve walked into my back yard, sat on the rocks and just pulled the trigger. One minute, start to finish. My courage was too low that day, the despair too great. I’m so glad I didn’t have a gun.
But more days than anyone can imagine, I lie in bed when I first wake up and summon courage. I summon the courage to get up anyway. To live my life that day anyway. To find some kind of happiness, some bit of joy anyway. To be willing to be open to joy even though there are ways that continues to be hard. I do it — I seek happiness, I allow happiness, I welcome joy, but it’s a brave choice, most days. This isn’t even about depression, which I know too well; it’s about what it is to live with it. To have survived. To be the survivor.
And so the pin I bought myself says “I saved my own life.” That’s brave, and I might even argue that it’s Brave. (Probably not.) One of these days, when I have earned it, I’ll buy myself the one that says “Found My Voice.” My daughter survived unimaginable grief, and that’s brave. It’s so much easier to give up the game, fold up the cloth, disappear from life in all the ways we can do that — drinking too much, abandoning ourselves to whatever is our drug of choice (carbs, for me), withdrawing from the world, dissolving into hate and anger, abandoning people, as my son has done with his family who desperately love and miss him. So much easier. It’s brave to risk, to risk again, to risk loss, to risk hurt. To risk involvement. To risk connection. If that has never required bravery on your part, then you have had a lucky life, and I don’t begrudge it! You have your own ways of being brave, because I believe we all do — and so does Emily McDowell, as she acknowledges the dozens and dozens of ways we show up to life. The ways we show up anyway. The things we had to fight for and maybe still have to fight for every day. The things we survived. The things we live with, and live anyway. Like me, you are brave in your own ways, I’d bet my bottom dollar.
READ: I like to read about the process of writing, and in case you are a writer, you might like these links:
- This post presents the responses of 12 contemporary writers to the question of how they go about the revision process. If you write and/or love books, Literary Hub is pretty reliably a great site to follow.
- And in the same vein, here’s a long interview with Julian Barnes (by John Freeman) talking about the revision process. The article has lovely photos of his manuscript pages with notes and scratch-outs — I always love seeing those.
- If you are as freaked out by the upcoming presidency as I am, Book Riot has a great list of books to read to help you survive. I’m reading White Trash already and can’t wait to read The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Their Own already, and am dying to read by Veronica Chambers, which publishes on Monday.
In a pretty low place right now. Pretty low.