Peasant Girl with Embroidery by Filipp Malyavin
It doesn’t seem to matter where I look, I can’t avoid seeing the usual persuasive messages to make improving resolutions as the next year rolls around. I’ve turned the television off for now and am now sitting in the peace and quiet of my studio . . . reflecting.
I am not going to make any New Year’s Resolutions! There – I’ve said it. Year after year has gone by, and the same old resolutions rear up again and again, much like in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, and for once I’m going to do something different. Has my life really changed that much for all the intention put into it at the beginning of each January? I think it’s time to cut myself some slack.
We watched the news tonight, and the New Year’s honours list of New Zealanders who have been awarded various orders of merit. And they probably all deserved them. But I’m a little tired of hearing about achievements, or people who have become famous for this or that, and the huge drive we seem to have for fame, fortune and the reaching of self-imposed pinnacles.
Where am I going with this?
The Angelus by Jean Francois Millet
For all that I can admire the hard work and achievement of others, there’s another part of me that is drawn to the other side of that spectrum.
The people who have been of the greatest influence in my own life, have not been the sort to be awarded medals or special honours. They have probably never sat down and contemplated how to be nicer, or kinder, or slimmer or simply more happy. It’s probably the last thing they would be thinking of.
In my early years I worked at the Government Printing Office, as a new graphic designer, and was full of the excitement and energy of the job and the potential for improving my situation. Working alongside me in the office were a number of other artists, but nearby there was a plate-making facility for transfering our designs into separated artwork for the presses, and in this area was a small non-descript desk. At this tiny table a little woman sat, bent almost double over her book of accounts. I called her Birdie, for she was as bright and cheerful as one, and she would shuffle over to speak to me first thing in the morning when she arrived. She must have been in her late forties, and her arms were twisted in upon themselves, and her feet were clubbed, and she walked bent over with slow and painful steps. Such was the condition of her twisted feet, that she made her own shoes! And she got herself in to work each day by train from Lower Hutt, and walked up from the station to the building. I visited her once at her house, and we shared a cup of tea and admired her two cats. For all the difficulty each day must have brought her, I cannot remember one complaining word out of her. Not one. She just got on with her life, recognized its limitations and adjusted her viewpoint, and looked for ways to enjoy it. That humbled me and has stayed with me since.
My own mother was a sweet and gentle woman, limited not physically but brought up to be frugal and careful with her money, and living with many more restrictions upon her than I currently enjoy. That elusive ability she had to feel joy over so little, is something I remember of her. She made occasions for us out of scant resources, and her face always lit up upon seeing any of us—even if we had only been gone an hour!
Millet by Romain Rolland
My bookshelf has books about people who have moved apart from the norm, and chose to follow a road of hardship and ignominy (in some cases), because they had seen something more important, something that acted upon them in vision or revelation. It became less about them and more about answering that ‘call’. Mother Theresa certainly is within that category, and she worked away all her life answering it not for the celebrity but because it had become as breathing to her. I mention her, because in the end she was very well known, but there are many who have come and gone without sending a ripple through the wider world. Watchman Nee was another, a Chinese man who gave up a promising career because he knew he was called to totally different path. His writings are rich and show a rare insight that is inspirational.
Most recently I came across some school children I taught at a local primary school who are now 45 yrs old. Along with them came a teacher from the neighbouring class. This teacher is now 87 years old, and I popped around to see her yesterday. Her story was amazing. She had a map of the world out and highlighted on it were all the places she has been, where she has offered her expertise as a teacher, freely. It looked like only a bit of Russia, Mongolia and upper Canada were unmarked. She has helped start schools in the most obscure places of the world, in hardship and enduring primitive conditions, and looks and sounds as she did when I worked with her forty years ago. She has an amazing faith, and I sat and soaked up her story in awe.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is how important it is to know yourself. And when you know yourself, and have taken stock of what you have and are, be grateful. I cannot look at any other person and think, ‘this year I am going to try to be more like them.’ Let’s face it, if we sat down and critiqued ourselves based upon ideals others have reached, we would have an interminable list. I will never be thin enough, funny enough, rich enough, pretty enough, loved enough—and to start at the point of measuring myself up against others will always be a disappointing and disheartening exercise.
Instead, I would like it to be less about me, and more about what truly drives me. If it is family or children, wonderful! If it is writing or art or dance or gardening, then let me revel in that. If it is a ‘call’ upon me, to reach out to others and share what I have found, then I will go for it with all my heart. Personally, I have found that the more passionate I am about the things that matter to me, the less I think about myself and what I lack. I would like to be remembered, as Birdie is to me, as the one who knew real joy and gave it back in abundance. That is what I remember about her – her triumph over her straitened circumstances. It is no small thing.
Portrait by Jozsef Soproni Horvath
It is a wonderful and rare thing to be content. Not lazy, not indolent, not apathetic—content.
Oh – and HAPPY NEW YEAR!