And Letters: Review of Dancing For Degas by Kathryn Wagner

Degas, Dance Class

As a little girl and ballet student, the iconic paintings of ballet dancers in unguarded moments backstage were as familiar to me as my posters of teen idol Bobby Sherman.   Of course, not many readers will remember Bobby Sherman, while Degas’ paintings of dancers endure.  To my young eyes, the dancers in the paintings were the epitome of grace and beauty and therefore had to be living exotic and romantic lives.  Kathryn Wagner, in her first novel, Dancing for Degas, satisfies every little ballerina’s curiosity by going beyond the canvas into the lives of Degas’ models.

Dancing for Degas is a fictionalized account of a young woman, Alexandrie, from a desperately poor farm family who goes to Paris to be a ballerina for the Paris Opera Ballet.  The ballet company is, however, an elegant front for a high-class brothel.  In Wagner’s story, wealthy patrons of the ballet – men of money and power – gain backstage access, including entrance to post-performance parties where alliances between the dancers and the patrons were forged.  If a ballerina remained a virgin, she could aspire to be made a mistress of a patron.  If she carelessly lost her virginity and failed to snag an exclusive arrangement, at age 25 the dancer was forced to become a prostitute.

Alexandrie is fascinated by Degas and his constant sketching at the ballet.  She catches the eye of Degas and becomes one of his primary models for his series of dancer paintings.  Alexandrie is archetype strong and  intelligent female trapped in a male-dominated world.  She finds Degas mercurial and mysterious.  He is one of the few men in the ballerina’s circle who appreciates her intelligence.  At heart, Dancing with Degas is less about the painter or the ballerinas and more of a girl-meets-boy love story.   It’s a fun read, but should only be a starting point for a closer look into the life of the Paris Opera Ballet and the paintings of Degas.  The real story is even more fascination.

Le Ballet de l’Opera national de Paris was established in 1661 by French King Louis XIV – who actually danced with the ballet from time to time.  In Degas’ day, the Ballet was an important part of the cultural life in Paris.  It is true that many of the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet came from poor, working class families.  Degas himself wrote, “It is among the common people that you find grace.” [i]

The dancers began training with the Opera at the age of 6, unlike Alexandrie who came as a teenager.  These Opera “petit rats” trained under the stern hand of the Ballet Master.  The Paris Opera Ballet was where “some of the city’s poorest young girls struggled to become the faries, nymphs and queens of the stage.”  [ii]

Edgar Degas, Before the Ballet, 1890/1892, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection 1942.9.19

But, was the ballet a front for a brothel?   It was true that wealthy male patrons – called abonnes — had unusual access to the dancers.  If you look closely at some of the paintings, you can see these men in the background.   The abonnes often became “protectors” of the dancers.  The wealthy abonnes “lurked in the foyers, flirted with the dancers in the wings and laid siege to their dressing” rooms.”[iii]

Was Degas an abonnes? Actually, Degas had to enlist the help of influential friends to gain backstage access to the ballerinas.  However, he did become an abonne later in his life.[iv] At one point in his fascination with the ballet, Degas focused his attention on the abonnes. He did some illustrations for a writer’s satirical book about “the often sordid affairs of young dancers, their mothers and the abonnés” but the book was never published.

Edgar Degas, Dancers Backstage, 1876/1883, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection 1970.17.25

Once he gained access to classrooms and behind stage, Degas did more than 1500 pieces of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers.  Over half were of dancers backstage or at rehearsal in unguarded poses and at rest.  He focused on the natural cycle of work and rest.  He admired the athleticism and controlled movement of the dancers and sought to depict the dancers’ potential movement, held in tension.[v]

In 1875, after the original Paris opera house burned, the Palais Garnier, became the new home of the ballet.  Here, Degas regularly sketched the dancers.  One ballerina later recalled that he “used to stand at the top or bottom of the many staircases . . . drawing the dancers as they rushed up and down.”[vi]

Sometimes Degas made “notes on his drawings, criticizing a dancer’s balance, or the placement of a leg. On one sketch he jotted down a teacher’s comment about a student’s awkwardness: ‘She looks like a dog pissing.'”  [vii]

But Degas made even more drawings in his studio.  He paid the young ballet students (called “petit rats“) and more experienced ballerinas to pose.  Once, an inspector from the police morals unit came to the studio and demanded to know “why so many little girls were coming and going.”  [viii]

In Dancing for Degas, the painter was moody and prone to anger.  But, the real Degas enjoyed spending time with the dancers, who shared their gossip with the painter as they posed. [ix] As in Wagner’s book, Degas’ brother, Achille did have an affair with a ballerina.  But, there is no evidence, though, that Degas had such an affair.  He did have women friends, including women artist like Mary Cassatt, but some considered him a misogynist.   As portrayed by Wagner, Degas never married because he believed a marriage would interfere with his work.

Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer” created particular controversy.  His model was fourteen-year old ballet student named Marie van Goethem.  Marie and her three sisters were training to become ballerinas.  Marie rose fast in the ballet; she progressed from a petit rat to the corps de ballet by the time she was fifteen, just after Degas completed the sculpture.   Unfortunately for Marie, she was fired from the ballet a couple of years later for excessive absences.  Marie’s mother, a widow, was a laundress and is said to have prostituted her daughters.  A newspaper article in 1882 claimed that Marie was a regular at disreputable cafes.   Then, Marie faded from site, and we don’t know what eventually happened to her.[x]

The Paris Opera Ballet is still going strong – and quite reputable.  Ballerinas still train at the Opera’s ballet school beginning at the age of sixteen.  At their website, you can take a virtual tour of the Palais Garnier, where the Degas roamed the halls observing the dancers.  Paris Opera Ballet:  http://www.operadeparis.fr/cns11/live/onp/L_Opera/L_Opera_de_Paris/histoire_de_l_Opera.php?lang=en


[i] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html

[ii] ibid

[iii] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm

[iv] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=2#ixzz0kcTmMNqJ

[v] http://www.nga.gov/feature/artnation/degas/index.shtm)

[vi] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[vii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWX

[viii] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[ix] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=1#ixzz0kcTUWXzY

[x] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/degas-dancers.html?c=y&page=3#ixzz0kcUOovOm

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And Letters: Review of Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitze

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

Artist Mary Cassatte evokes strong images of motherhood

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to  men’s neckties. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

Dr. Chase’s Last and Complete Work

In a recent browse through the local antique mall, I discovered a weathered copy of a book called Dr. Chase’s Last Receipt Book and Household Physician,  published in 1906.  I snatched it up to use in my art.   After doing a little research, I found out that Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book was one of the first “how-to” books and was popular  before and during the Civil War.

If the worth of a book correlates to its full title, this book is one of the most valuable on earth.  The complete title is: 

Memorial Edition of Dr. Chase’s Third, last and Complete Receipt Book and Household Physician, or Practical Knowledge for the Peopled; from the Life-Long observations of the author, embracing the Choisest, Most Valuable and Entirely New Receipts in Every Department of Medicine, Mechanics, and Household Economy; including a Treatise on The Diseases of Women and Children; In Fact, The Book for the Million; with Remarks and explanations which adapt it to the Every-day Wants of the People, Arranged in Departments and most Copiously Indexed.

  As a kind of afterthought, below the author’s name is one more statement:  “Why Conceal That Which Relieves Distress?” 

It turns out the copy I bought was a salesman’s copy.  It has the beautiful cover, but includes only samples of  Dr. A.W. Chase’s copious knowledge.  In the back of my copy, there is a subscription page for a salesman to record orders on several fold-out lined pages.  Apparently, the owner of my book wasn’t much of a salesman because the order sheets were blank.  They looked like the old Red Chief tablets kids used to use in school. Though my copy has just samples, the full book contains advice on everything from medical treatments to bee-keeping, to  how to wash lace veils.

The advice about women’s conditions was interesting.   Dr. Chase warned women about their periods   “Allow me here to give a word of caution about taking cold at this period. It is very dangerous. I knew a young girl, who had not been instructed by her mother upon this subject, to be so afraid of being found with this show upon her apparel which she did not know the meaning of, that she went to a brook and washed herself and clothes — took cold, and immediately went insane.”

Of course, I was curious what kind of man could boast such vast knowledge.  Dr. Chase was born in New York in 1817.  In the introduction to an earlier edition of Dr. Chase’s book, he wrote  that he “carried on the Drug and Grocery business for a number of years, read Medicine, after being thirty-eight years of age, and graduated as a Physician.”     The success of his books put  Dr. Chase on “the high road to fortune” according to a memoria in my copy.  Alas, Dr. Chase lost most of his wealth because he was apparently generous in the service of “advancement of education and benevolent enterprises.”  The memoria goes on:

But the storms of life finally overtook him and swept with almost resistless fury around the now aged physician, and a few of the prejudices that characterize the human family found a resting place in the heart of this noble man; yet, when the last chapter shall have been entered in the book of life, the account will probably be balanced. 

There is a black and white drawing of Dr. A.W. Chase, M.D. inside my copy.  He is extremely wizened with a long white beard that tapers to a point just at the top of his vest.  It is an oddly intimate portrait, maybe because the lines of his face and beard are so detailed.   Much of Dr. Chase’s advice is outdated.  Think about the place where we now get “copious” information on endless subjects — the Internet.   It might be kind of comforting to hold in one’s hand all the information necessary to manage domestic life.

An Apology of Motherhood – Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten Year Nap

Meg Wolitzer's The Ten Year Nap

I was in my car when I heard Meg Wolitzer on NPR discussing her new novel, The Ten Year Nap. For a weird second, it seemed like I was talking on the radio, but that was impossible because I was in my car, swerving inappropriately into other people’s lanes. Wolitzer was definitely talking about my life-the life of a woman who quit working to stay home with the kids. I dug around for a pen, and scribbled the title of the book on an old bank receipt.

I went straight home and ordered the book. The Ten Year Nap follows a group of women who put careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. But, Wolitzer doesn’t write about that initial decision that comes as such a shock to many modern new moms who find themselves embracing what we thought was an old-fashioned notion of motherhood. Instead she focuses on a later stage of motherhood, when the infants have become school-aged, and what was meant to be a temporary situation begins to feel disturbingly permanent. Wolitzer examines the moment when the mother comes up for air, catches her breath, and figures out how to become comfortable in her own skin again. I responded as strongly as I did to Wolitzer’s book because I am a mother who quit working to raise a child. I was desperate to read The Ten Year Nap because I hoped to find some explanation or justification for the decisions I’ve made. Honestly, I was hoping the book would confirm that what I was doing was smart and worthwhile.

Wolitzer’s book, though, doesn’t take sides in the work-home debate. What it does do is elevate the debate by treating the subject intelligently, with wry humor, and a certain amount of contemplative reverence. It is a fairly realistic paean to the confusing mess of feelings that go along with modern motherhood. The women in the novel, each in their own way, are experiencing a kind of mid-life crisis. One central character, Amy, gave up a law career ten years earlier and now worries that she’s too out-of-date to go back to work. She’s also coming to grips with the financial toll the decision to stay at home has had on her family. Amy’s best friend, Jill, chose to stay at home to raise her adopted daughter with whom she is disturbingly unable to bond. Isolated in her new suburban home, Amy struggles to reconcile her expectations with her real life. The barrier-busting feminists from the early days of the women’s lib movement are represented in the character of Amy’s mother, Antonia. In a way, Antonia and her group of aging feminists seem almost as dated as a group of June Clever moms. Yet Amy can’t help wondering if, in making her decision to quit working, she has turned her back on the hard-fought gains made by women like her mother. Is a woman who quits work to raise children backsliding? It’s a question many women struggle to answer.

When I entered the work world in the 1980’s, women executives tied little scarves around their necks in a strange homage to the men’s necktie. Female veterans of the workplace warned of the danger of appearing too feminine. We should never coo over pictures of other people’s children and should never bring baked goods to office parties. God forbid anyone should visualize us in the kitchen with a mixer and an oven mitt. We were wedging our way into what had been an exclusively man’s world by mimicking as closely as possible the successful man. What our strategy failed to consider was that by modeling ourselves on men, we became conspirators in further diminishing the value of work traditionally considered “women’s.” If the feminist movement was about “self-actualization,” it has failed women who choose home over work. Women have gained status in the work world. But women who discover they want to stay home with their children can’t shake the feeling that they are somehow settling for less than they should.

If men and women were valued equally, there would be equal numbers of men and women choosing home over work. Clearly that is not the case. The Ten Year Nap illustrates how intensely personal these decisions are. It also reflects the biases that still remain in play between men and women. The decision to return to work or stay home with a child depends, not just on unique personal factors, but also on perceptions. Real parity between the sexes isn’t possible until both sexes perceive both kinds of work as equally valuable.

In Character: Exploring Character in Ken Follett’s World Without End

 

Moon Wishes by ruthsartsandletters on Etsy.com

Last night I said farewell to old friends. I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town. I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city. I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2010 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair. I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving. I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.

After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people. In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us. How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed? Therein likes the writer’s craft. Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature. A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name. A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved. The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story. A character that does not change through the text is a static character. A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot. A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex. Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.” These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.

Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters. Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated. Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character. Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities. Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level. In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character? Is she a person I’d like to know?”

A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters •• The character is motivated from within to act •• The character is responsible for their own actions •• The character is unique and responds in personal ways •• The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable. As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text. In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior. A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously. An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. Conventional archetypes include •• the “great mother” •• the “wise old man” •• the “trickster” •• the “scarlet woman” •• the “faceless man.” •• the “artist-scientist”

Example: The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.” The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker. They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain. They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent. They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.

The artist-scientist is an agent of change. This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact.

Application:   The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed. His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period. The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype. He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder. Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.

When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it. In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed. Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them. Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.

 To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan. Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas. He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.

By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known. For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward. Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.

Bibliography

Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature

http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_p.htm#top

 PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML

Literary Archetypes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory: An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.

http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/anacrit.htm

Follett, Ken, World Without End

 New York, Penguin Group. Moon, Brian, Literary Terms,

The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999 Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998). On mythology, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01736-0  

How I Lost Part of Myself

Designed by Ruth Powell

 

I wrote this article awhile back when I lost weight.  With the holiday season coming up, I thought we could all use some nutritional inspiration.  Take heart — even my diet guru says she gains around seven pounds every Christmas.  You just have to correct that after the fuss is over!  Read on: 

This time last year I weighed sixty pounds more than I do today. I gave up hope that I’d ever be thin again, no more admirers, no more double-takes. I’d given up hope of ever again becoming incensed by whistling construction workers. It wasn’t a happy truth, but I grew to accept that my shelf life had expired and I’d been taken off the market. I had the usual waistline and hip issues. What surprised me was how seriously fat is attracted to breasts as well. Mine were a living science project on gravity. Large breasts make a great catcher’s mitts for spilled food and like a scarlet letter, all my shirts bore stains. My wide behind was a billboard that said, “I have absolutely no self control.” It didn’t help that all my friends are thin. At parties, like an illicit lover I tried to act blasé about my lust for whatever sweets were served, but I’m sure my friends noticed me surreptitiously going back for seconds, thirds, fourths. It took a lot of work to haul around that much fat and I was embarrassed by the savage shade of red my face would turn at the least exertion. I was even more mortified when my face dripped sweat from every pore, forehead to chin. On the plus side, if I got thirsty, I could just suck liquid off my upper lip. I never really thought the whole diet thing would work. Only in hindsight can I even own up to being fat. I assiduously maintained plausible denial by shunning mirrors and other reflective surfaces and refusing to pose for any family pictures unless there was someone fatter in front of me. You can tell it’s me in photos. I’m the elbow on the far left. The problem with denial-even those most meticulously maintained-is that it all goes up like smoke if you let your guard down even for a minute. My lapse happened at my doctor’s office when I thoughtlessly caught a glance of my chart while the nurse wrote down my weight. It was careless and I knew better. I had not memorized every inch of ceiling above that scale by being careless. Denial was no longer plausible. I told my doctor I was sick and tired of being fat and was ready to do something about it. I think she believed me just a little less than I believed myself. I’ll be darned if the diet thing did work. The first sign came while showering one night about two weeks into my diet. Reaching around to wash my back side, I realized suddenly that I could SEE my back side. There it was. Just a little twist of the waist and there it was. For a minute I thought I’d fallen into a parallel universe, but then I remembered that I’d been dieting and getting smaller was what was supposed to happen when one diets. I’d heard the stories, but never put any stock in them. Things snowballed after that. One little taste of victory made me voracious for more. It was like Christmas Day every day, except for the days when I felt like I’d won the lottery. Lest I be guilty of overselling, not everything about my new small-sized perspective was good. Being able to look down on myself past the top of my belly I realized that while I was as yet free of grey hairs on my head, I had silvered up in other areas. Still, it was worth it to be smaller. Shortly after the shower revelation, I was zoning out in the kitchen while my husband and son argued and noticed my size sixteen J Jill skort was kind of baggy. Out of natural curiously (or perhaps it was the show-off in me) without unzipping or unbuttoning, I pulled down on the skort. It came all the way off. Glory be! I was thrilled, but my son was somewhat alarmed. Mama needed some new clothes, baby. New clothes, indeed. I needed new soup to nuts. Bras, panties, pajamas. Even my wedding ring got too big. Only by going to Wal-Mart was I able clothe myself through size twelve, size ten, and size eight. Size eight was where I figured I’d top out. That’s where I was before I got fat. But my new destiny was revealed to me in a dressing room at the mall by a size six pair of blue jeans. Second only to the size six jeans, the most exhilarating purchase was a new bathing suit. No bikini-I am a sensible forty-something lady after all. But I did get an appropriately modest two piece with skirt and a supportive bodice. It revealed just a small strip of my very pale and newly-flat belly. Like my daddy used to say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. People congratulated me and called my weight loss an accomplishment, but I feel like I lost weight in spite of myself. I never in a million years believed it would actually happen. It dawned on me that there might be other heretofore impossible things I could do. There were, especially physical things like chasing a Frisbee, sliding gracefully between chairs in crowded restaurants, turning backward somersaults, to name a few. The best impossible thing I’ve done wasn’t physical, though. By far the best thing I’ve done is letting other people read my writing. People often ask me for dieting advice. They want to know “how I did it.” Then, usually, the person tells me all the reasons they could never do those things. After awhile, I got tired of listening to excuse lists and began to feel a little self-righteous. I’m trying to sidle off that high horse. Most of my friends and family have gotten used to the new me and have stopped wanting to talk about diets. I’m settling into the new me, too. Maybe I’m almost back to being just me. I’ve kept the weight off so far. But, I swear, my thighs are looking

Refocusing on the Art

One of my gifty jewelry boxes available on ruthsartsandletters.etsy.com

 

It’s cyber Monday.  The Christmas season is upon us, whether we are ready or not.  (Personally, this past year went by entirely too fast, but that’s another thing altogether.)  The thing is, I did a couple of craft shows this fall, so I worked like a demon to crank out stuff I thought would sell well as Christmas gifts.  But, I overdo everything.  I made way too many cards and ornaments and jewelry boxes, and even worse, the work – and the holiday preparations – stopped being fun.  

It was time to refocus my efforts.  I reminded myself why I’m doing this — how good it feels to create something that others find beautiful or evocative.  The best compliment I ever got was from a young woman who told me my collages were like treasure hunts — you kept finding little things hidden here and there.  I love being able to create meaning for people — or more precisely, helping people create meaning for themselves.

So, it’s back to the artistry and away from giftable gadgets.  I decided to spend the holiday dabbling in something new — encaustic art.  I’ve ordered some supplies and look forward to experimenting and learning.  This may not be proper proceedure, but I like to experiment a little first, before I learn actual techniques because it frees me up to see all the possibilities.

Once this decision was made, that glorious feeling came back.   I don’t know that my encaustic work will be masterpiece-ful.  But the process of learning it will be.  Plus, Christmas can be Christmas again!