In Grief, Love

I started this painting on the afternoon of January 6th, while unbeknownst to me violence was unfolding in the U.S. Capitol. I “finished” it the next morning, moving it out of a much uglier stage. Although I’m not sure I’ve moved it far enough out of “ugliness,” I also know it’s good to sit with it all, that the truth of a moment doesn’t always appear beautiful in the ways we’ve known. And also, that ugliness and beauty are mostly ideas and relative to their context. Art is not always visually appealing; movement doesn’t always feel good. My paintings don’t usually name themselves when they aren’t finished, but this one did, so maybe it is.

Memories of a 4th Grade Love Note

This morning, without any clear stimulus, I was treated to the memory of a note I once received from a 4th grade classmate. The note was written on an unlined piece of pulpy paper, the kind designated for math problems, and folded into a small careful square. Above a pencil sketch of a toilet, the note read: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” It was a decent rendering of a toilet, leaving no question about what it was, but I remember wondering about it. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have drawn a turkey?

While I may have been confused by the mixed metaphor, I treasured the note. How or whether I responded I don’t recall, but I believe I recognized it as the love note it was, not only because it was signed, “Love, Matt.” And I’d like to think I was demonstrably grateful in some way, but I’m not sure that’s true.

What’s interesting for me to think about now, especially as I conjure an image of my 4th grade self, is that I don’t remember being outwardly vulnerable enough to warrant such a specifically encouraging note. I wasn’t a victim of bullying. I wasn’t really teased at that age. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did what I could to appear immune. Was that also the same year I brought a pocket knife to school? Quite possibly.

Now, I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. I wasn’t a bad kid. Rough around the edges, yes, but generally a rule follower and a serious student. I was also quite sad and angry a lot of the time, but I didn’t think that showed, at least not at school.

It’s funny now to consider whether my internal struggles were more transparent than I realized, at least to Matt, whose kindness registered even then, but not nearly as much as it does now. It takes a special kind of person to see what lies beneath the masks we wear, the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, the things we try not to broadcast.

And it’s true I don’t really know what Matt intended to communicate. He was obviously repeating something he’d heard and maybe he simply liked drawing toilets and was intrigued by idioms. His conscious intent doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the memory, 41 years later, the long echo of imperfect, innocent love. And my newfound appreciation for the the note exactly as it was, the toilet especially. Because I understand now, more than I possibly could have then, that life is indeed filled with bowls of shit, including those of our own making. We persevere by not letting the turkeys get us down, it’s true. But maybe the real secret is found in small acts of kindness, in seeing what lies beneath rough exteriors and writing love notes to whomever we can.