Friday, May 06, 2011

 An Ode to Frida
 "Toni Morrison said that "the function of freedom is to free someone else." This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won't lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it's important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won't like what you say. It's going to hurt—and it's going to heal."
-- Martha Beck, in an article on

 I read this article at about the same time that I was going through a crisis of faith about my writing. Was my writing, as some have said, too much about my depression, my worries, and my relationships? Am I just too self-obsessed, and is my writing just - if you'll pardon the term - intellectual and emotional masturbation? At the same time as I was worrying about this and reading Oprah (!), I was reading Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. It struck me as I pondered if the writing I've done up to this point - as obsessed as it is with love, heartache, pain, emotion, and psycho-spirituality - was just a huge waste of my time, that Frida Kahlo probably heard much the same criticisms about her paintings. Not that I compare myself to Frida Kahlo, necessarily, but it did strike me that my writing is always about my own personal inner experience, as are Frida's paintings, and, similarly to Frida's paintings, my writing doesn't shy away from expressing pain or heartache.

 Nearly all of Frida's critically acclaimed paintings are of herself. They reflect her inner world, what she experienced, her pain, her triumph, her loves, and her dreams. Her paintings are often inscrutable. And her life is as fascinating, if not more so, than her paintings. Frida spent a lot of time and energy creating a persona to present to the world. The clothes and jewelry she wore and how she behaved in public were carefully cultivated. In life, she was complex, magnanimous, passionate, and generous, at least when she was feeling well. People loved her. But she was often in extreme emotional and physical pain, both due to her many illnesses and chronic physical damage from the accident that almost killed her as a teenager, as well as her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she adored and who, it can be argued, treated her terribly.

And she painted herself obsessively. This is how she told her story.

Clearly, this was a woman who lived mostly in her inner world, who spent a lifetime carefully exploring her psyche, pondering who she was and what her place was in the world. Love - not only the love of Diego but the love of her family, friends, lovers, and animal companions - was of the utmost importance to her. She desperately wanted children but was unable to carry a baby to term due to her physical infirmities. And this pain, anguish, and fixation on love and relationships can be seen in her paintings. So would we consider Frida to be overly obsessed with herself? Do Frida's paintings - and her life - teach us anything about ourselves or the world? Would the world have been better served if Frida had just shut up and "turned that frown upside down", perhaps divorcing Diego for once and for all (the man did have an affair with her sister, for God's Sakes!!) marrying a sweet, quiet bureaucrat and living placidly in the suburbs, whiling away her time washing her husband's socks?

I am certainly no Frida Kahlo, but when I read about her, her experience resonates with me. Her life and loves were epic, and mine are not, but whether she was feeling tortured by pain, love, confusion, or absence, caught between societal expectations and her own soul, or enraptured by the beauty of the natural world, she expressed it. In paintings, in letters, in conversations with those closest to her, she never pretended it wasn't happening.  And now, she's not remembered because she had a bad accident, an amazing unibrow, was a devoted Communist, taught art class,  or kept Diego's house; she's remembered because she was a brave, sensitive, passionate woman who dared to express the most intense pains and joys of her soul and to make them public.She's remembered because she told her story. Fearlessly, relentlessly, and without artifice.

Martha Beck says that our greatest gift to others is to tell our story, and that a heart is not imprisoned by being broken by being silenced. My heart has been broken time and time again, but I refuse to shut up about it. Because I am sensitive to the pains of love, I'm also sensitive to the joys of living. And if I don't paint enough flowers and sunny days with my writing, that's because I know wholeheartedly - the way my lungs know to breathe -  that life is more complex than that. It's not because I don't see it.

Storytelling can happen in so many ways. It happens in the clothes we wear, the persona we present, how we decorate our houses, the gifts we give, and, more obviously, in how we talk about ourselves to ourselves and also to others. In this Facebook age, we're telling our stories more publically than ever before, and I, for one, love it. I'm addicted to Facebook because every time someone posts something, they're adding a new chapter to their story. Frida was criticized in some circles for how she told her story. Too dark, too much pain, too depressing, too personal. But to me, her story inspires me, telling as it does the tale of a woman beset by many pains who nevertheless managed to live a vibrant life full of love and magic. I want to learn from her story - as well as from the stories of everyone around me - how to live that kind of life. And, in my blog and in other ways, I want tell my story, hoping that it will resonate with and teach others. My message? Tell your story, and tell it loud!

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