A convoluted metaphor
This was an essay I wrote nearly six years ago. I had entirely forgotten I had written it, but was reminded of it recently by a kind man looking for a public copy. I thought I’d publish it again, for posterity. More new essays soon. ♥︎
Sometime in 2013 I began to write myself notes. The first was “worry about your own fucking self,” messily written on a blue, lined post-it note that I had stuffed in my pocket from the desk at my college library job. I had written it because I was worried about a man. Nothing altruistic mind you, mostly worried what he thought of me. I used artist’s tape to stick it above my desk, its post-it note glue already faded, next to a note my grandmother had written herself, for a painting she had been working on before she died.
She had been painting a landscape. With watercolor, scenes are built patiently in washes of paint to reach the right values and depths. It’s a process which requires planning.
During my teen years, in her eighties, my grandmother gave me and my friend Sara a few, too-short lessons on watercolor painting. We went to her upstairs studio, where she had instructed my grandpa to set up mini painting stations for us — old, plastic baby wipe containers full of water, folded half-sheets of paper towels, palettes with old, dry watercolor paint — organized neatly on a folding card table.
She had taught us how, rather than readying a brush with paint and running it along the paper, to use a clean brush and first paint with the water itself. To watch where and how the water pooled on the paper. When the water seemed right, to slide the brush full of paint into the pool. The color would softly burst and then rapidly — and chaotically — disperse. She showed us how, with the paper in a straightjacket of neat tape on a board, to bend and dance with the board, to roll the paint in the desired direction. Sometimes we’d need to soak up some of the water with the torn corner of a paper towel. Sometimes it looked very bad.
During our lessons, my grandma would snap at me when I’d muddle the painting with a brush full of paint, trying to correct whichever inexperienced mistake I had made. The painting, in my embarrassed, rushed fury, would become dirty and tepid and dry. Watercolor is inherently frustrating, and unforgiving.
My grandmother had written her note as a reminder, an instruction. I’ve kept writing my notes too.
With time, they became less sarcastic and rude to myself. They became soft instructions, uncomfortably earnest. Their earnestness was embarrassing — the point, perhaps, in a world where everything feels frustrating and unforgiving. Posting them in public, too, on Instagram was embarrassing. They felt like subtweets (some of them were), sometimes they were performances of my own desired profundity, other times they were aspirational lies. They were very kind.
The notes, they carried me through that first worry (he did not love me), through grief, through my thesis work, through the worst depressions I have ever had. They taught me that I wasn’t helpful to myself, much less anyone else, if I wasn’t soft. If I wasn’t patient.
I’ve spent these last months resisting my notes — resisting any instruction at all, letting a creeping cynicism towards words, communication, community, and even action simmer. The visible instructions failed — vote, stronger together, I’m with her, love trumps hate. They were instructions much bigger than myself, but I had adopted them because I needed them and I believed in them. I’m trying to again.
I’ve never liked cynicism and I’ve never liked frustrating processes, which I realize now is the like water and oil of paired personal ideologies. I keep turning around, muddling with paint — letting myself off the hook.
So, I guess, to get back to whatever metaphor this is, and my grandmother, and what it means to be soft to oneself in public platitudes: I return to the visible instruction. If I have to choose one now, and I think I should, it is “paint with the water first.” Not a baptism, not even a cleansing, but a 15 year old girl listening.
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