Saturday, March 24, 2012

Migrant Mother

She was earnest in her attempt to explain to him he meant the world to her. It wasn't meant to be but she ignored the quiet little voice in her head and figured she should at least try and explain to him how she felt. He cautiously listened--much to her surprise--and seemed to inch further away from her with each spoken word. She noticed but she didn't let it phase her, she was determined to show him how genuine her feelings were.

They spoke for a brief time and it did not go how she had hoped. She expected a bit more appreciation if not mutual affection and what she ended up with was pain. He explained who he really was wiping away the facade that had been "him" for the past six months. Each moment they spent together, she swore she could feel a connection that felt stronger with each meeting. Yet throughout, there was never any mention of romance or commitment, just friendly banter that often led to encouragement and optimism. And there, that night, the leap of faith of truly expressing her desires to him backfired in a way she was not expecting despite having the emotional scars of someone twice her age.

"I could never be with someone like you--at your age. It might be great for a while but I would worry as time went on that you're too old to be a good mother," he said without malicious intent but as if it was fair, relevant, and even logical.

She could feel the blood drain from her face as her mouth gaped open ever so slightly. There wasn't much she could say as the tide of emotions from this bold rejection overwhelmed her entire body. After a few moments, she could only look down, accept reality, and nod her head. She was done. Her case was plead and jury deliberations were quick and painful. She utter a few more words that were probably unintelligible, picked up their trash from the table, and headed out the door without looking back. The long walk to her car actually felt good and after getting in, she sat there for a while letting the truth sink in. It would appear his stinging honesty must have reflected how others feel, too. And so her thoughts turned to a grim outlook for her future and the seeming perpetual singleness that would plague her for the rest of her life.

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), is the black and white photograph of a woman named Florence Owens Thompson and three of her seven children. Her expression is derived from their family's car breaking down just minutes before the photo was snapped, yet in her eyes we can see miles of struggle and the last bits of hope fading off in the distance. In her arms is her youngest while her other two hide their faces in admitted shame; meanwhile her husband and two of their sons are off someplace else attempting to find someone who can repair their vehicle. Taken in 1936 during the Great Depression and during a time where many were still struggling despite some miniscule upswing in the markets, the image and the family exemplify pure poverty and destitution far too many others suffered during those days.

It feels as if this one moment captures an expression of how we all feel in our hearts from time to time. It's as if pessimism is no longer a reaction but a means to face reality. When so much has been lost and each attempt to move forward is met with failure, as a defense mechanism our emotions and minds begin to expect nothing good can ever come. For if nothing good is expected, only then can good truly be recognized as good, right? At least for some, this is the type of philosophical ideology that is accepted and is exuded in this portrait.

Reality, however, is not evil. The inclination to think the worst is all one can expect and to emphasize adverse aspects only serves to beget the worst. Therefore, I would suggest that pessimism is a faulty emotion stemming from weakness. Being human, of course there will be moments where it's near impossible to expect anything less than rubbish. But should one allow that emotion to run rampant and overcome one's ability to see beyond one's own feet, then one has allowed the reality of the future to become meaningless. And how foolish is it to think that?

Beyond our own pains and struggles, there lies the very real and true future of what has yet to pass. One could argue that tomorrow could bring fortunes a plenty, or a catastrophe that leads to one's ultimate demise. So who am I to suggest that either future outcome is something to be met with optimism? Because I have experienced both. I have had moments where amazing opportunities have been handed to me or earned, and I have lost my mother to cancer. Selfishly, those opportunities brought financial and professional benefits I am still able to reap. Unselfishly, my mother's passing has helped me grow up to be a man with strong morals and passions few others have the chance to experience.

And while imperfection lies at every turn my life takes and I have my moments where my heart expresses the same weary hopelessness we see in Mrs. Thompson's eyes, I have the experience to know that tomorrow is in fact a new day! Will tomorrow be wrought with fortune and blessings? Maybe not but it will most certainly have moments where I'll be challenged as a person, a professional, a brother, a son. And that's because I allow my optimism to overrule my inclination to be pessimistic. I've faced my own fair share of struggles but I decided long ago that I would learn from them and to accept my own failures as opportunities to make me a better person. And were I to die tomorrow, I can rest peacefully knowing those who have seen my plight to improve my life can find hope for themselves. I cannot change what tomorrow will bring and by accepting that, I can change how I will bring myself through tomorrow.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Vase of Flowers

The chill of the morning being wiped away as the rising sun peaks the horizon and its warm light bathes your face.

The simple sense of pleasure as you squeeze your eyes shut and inhale the enchanting aroma of a rose.

Wheezing through the thin air, you exert what's left of your strength and give it your all to pull yourself up the final rock as you crest the mountain only to behold the breathtaking view on the other side.

That instantaneous moment as you are on one knee, looking up at her face, and she answers, "Yes!"

Isn't it convenient that each moment we are met with a sense of optimism is the same moment one of our senses is overwhelmed? Well, perhaps not convenient but a blessing? With each of the examples above, though, if you're able to empathize with those moments, you're able to remember how it felt and how nothing else in the world mattered. Being overcome with reality in a way that surpasses frivolity is a moment in your life where optimism and hope were real. You were able to find a tangible source to remind you that things really are not that bad.

All too often and almost always coupled with complacency, individuals will miss out on the positive things in life because selfishness has become the dominant catalyst. Self-centered and apathetic towards others, he or she ignores the alleviating emotion that exists in nearly every single moment in life. Instead of walking away from a seemingly tragic moment reminded of one's own fortune, the individual allows his selfishness to promote anger. Instead of feeling genuinely happy for a newly wedded friend, the individual allows his selfishness to promote envy. You get the picture.

Not all circumstances in life will usher in obvious opportunities to feel good. In fact, it's foolish to expect it. But the individual who seeks to find the good in all things is the one who will yield the most fulfilling life. No matter how great or difficult life can be, it's up to every single one of us to dig beyond our own centric ideals and find the wisp of promise and relief that resides in each and every moment.

Vase of Flowers, by Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), is one of the most vivid still-life paintings ever created. On display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, this work is masterfully described as:
Arranged in a terracotta vase displaying an antique relief, Jan van Huysum included flowers from all seasons of the year--roses, anemones, hyacinths, tulips, and more--and painted them directly from life. The flowers' nearly overripe quality attests both to nature's bounty and its transience. The bouquet is ordered in a loose pyramidal shape, with flowers and greenery almost bursting to be free of the vase. Butterflies and other insects fly or crawl amongst the arrangement, and drops of water are visible on leafs and shiny petals.

Meticulous in his method and famous for the genre, van Huysum would sometimes painstakingly take several years to complete his paintings.

I've never honestly been a fan of still-life. It's never felt expressive to me until I recently saw this piece in person. At the time, I was mesmerized by the stark detail and incredible colors. It felt like I was looking at something created on a computer rather than a 18th Century art piece. And then the last two weeks happened. Frustration after frustration, set-back after set-back; it was a relentless barrage of negativity and spurned on by apathetic masses who wallow in ignorance. With each wave of vitriol and having the responsibility of policing it, I kept screaming inside at the faceless crowds hoping it would end and that they would see the light.

And that's just it! There is light there! There is light everywhere!! No matter the circumstances or your understanding of the truth, there is light and if you refuse to find it, you are hurting yourself and everyone else around you. It's a simple law and it is flawless. When faced with adversity, if you seek to find the good, the hope, the light, you will inevitably bring good, hope, and light into your life and to those around you. Optimism is not a disease or a chore but a gesture of kindness, a sign of wisdom, and the result of a selfless attitude.

When I spend time examining the details of van Huysum's Vase of Flowers, I'm lost in color, beauty, detail, and simplicity surrounded by glorious complexity. The burdensome weights of this world and life and responsibility no longer matter as I am optimistically swept away with still-life that is calming and wonderful. If you're capable of doing the same, then no matter what type of situation you face, you can repeat the practice. Go on! Find the wisp of reason to be optimistic and then share with me what happened. I would truly enjoy it.