Years ago, I came across an older woman with a prominent tattoo. Amidst the wrinkles, I spotted “DON’T NEVER EVER GIVE UP.” Immediately, the ghost of Miss Mercer, my ninth-grade grammar teacher, appeared. She cackled and said, “A double negative creates a positive statement!”
Bad grammar aside, I understood the message: Don’t give up, no matter what.
Fast forward to the present. I often haunt the recycling area of the McGuffey Arts Center, on high alert for treasures. One day I discovered a blank sheet of Kilimanjaro watercolor paper. Delighted, I brought it home. I decided to paint a portrait based on a beguiling photo I’d been given permission to use. After an hour of painting, the face I was trying to capture seemed anemic. The colors looked blah.
Disgusted, I ripped the paper from my easel and started to crumple it. But as I did, a friend’s advice came to mind: Don’t toss out your “failed” art projects. You can always repurpose them. So, I retaped the painting to my easel and began slapping down gobs of brilliant red, yellow and orange paint, paying attention to areas of shadow and light. At some point, I went to bed without examining the finished product.
The next morning, I saw a loose, vibrant painting filled with emotion. Did it resemble the original photo? Nope. Were the shadows and bits of light in places that made sense? Somewhat, but not exactly. Did the woman look as if she had a
deviated septum? Unfortunately, yes. The painting isn’t perfect, but I don’t care. I love that it’s colorful and expressive and that it emerged out of a mess.
Times are tough now. Our lives are likely to become even tougher this winter. If our current situation were a painting, I’d want to crumple it up and throw it out. But none of us has that option.
We each can choose how we respond. We can blithely soldier on, denying, minimizing and invalidating our experiences. That’s known as toxic positivity. It doesn’t work.
After I read an online article in Entrepreneur, it occurred to me that maybe we all need a little grit. The article defines grit as “… staying strong, confident, committed and optimistic in the face of pain, grief or fear.”
A person with grit doesn’t deny reality, but instead embraces and faces it. Admittedly, this is a tall order in the midst of the loss of loved ones, the loss of financial stability, the loss of the specific future we anticipated.
Recently, I learned that in the Amazon, butterflies drink the tears of turtles to obtain much-needed sodium. Forgive me if I sound like the Hallmark Channel, but I feel comforted that the tears of a turtle are not wasted. And, during these difficult days, I’d like to believe that somehow our tears also are not wasted.
We are in the middle of a mess, a big ugly mess that isn’t going to disappear any time soon. Although my life is easy compared to others, I admit that some days it’s a struggle for me not to crumple up the paper and toss it in the garbage.
Maybe it comes down to this: Each new day, I need to figure out the gift that is embedded in the imperfect life I am currently experiencing. Then, I need to gather my strength in order to create beauty out of that offering.
Let me end where I started: DON’T NEVER EVER GIVE UP.
See you on the other side.
Deborah Prum’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Southern Living and Ladies’ Home Journal. Her fiction has won ten awards and has appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Across the Margin and Streetlight Magazine. Her radio essays air on NPR-member stations.
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