Sometimes it feels like a challenge to hold on to the good qualities I have, and not get stuck in an endless cycle of negativity. The whole growing up in a Dutch Reformed area where you are constantly told how depraved you are thing probably didn’t help matters. Having a mother who followed compliments with a “but…” certainly didn’t help matters. And the added weight of shame and confusion and pain from childhood trauma compounded the focus on the bad things, and the distance between me and the knowledge of my skills.
And our society didn’t help me to hold the good qualities. I was recently reading a theory of how school takes what was creative and forces it to be linear. Blobs with legs are left behind, and in their place sit letters and numbers with distinct requirements and a lack of creative expression. And as we become more and more focused on the “correctness” of penmanship and math equations and memorization, we start to lose confidence in the blobs with legs and the ways that we expressed our thoughts and emotions through our drawing or singing or dancing, without a care of skill or proper technique. This theory struck a chord with me (no pun intended).
I was one of those children who loved to draw and paint and sing and dance and run and climb and express myself with abandon. I know this, not because I remember doing those things as a child, but because my spirit still cries out to do these things. And I rarely do them, despite those cries. I haven’t sung alone in public since high school, perhaps. I haven’t painted a picture since elementary school, I would guess. And dancing only happens when I drink too much at a club or when I am shuttered away behind the most closed of doors, even though my body wants to throw out my arms and twirl more often than I might like to admit. Something in me still desires all of that expression. Bits of it spill out at times: singing in the college choir, decorating a cake, doing a bit of DIY furniture refinishing, tapping my foot in time with the music streaming through my headset while I ride the bus. But, for the most part, my artistic self is hidden behind walls of “not good at” and “not appropriate” and “just something I threw together” and plain old avoidance of the production of art.
“But you write, Christy”, might be a response that has occurred to you already. It occurred to me too. But I realized that it has taken many years to for me to embrace my writing as a skill or an art form or an outlet for emotional expression. And I also spent many years practicing that skill and art in secret … writing poems or letters in hidden notebooks that never met eyes other than my own. And I did so, because I feared the judgments of others, and felt like my expression wouldn’t be “good enough”.
I have the word “Enough” tattooed on my arm. I see it every morning when I get dressed. That tattoo is meant for the whole of me—to see myself as enough as I am, without outside affirmation or some need to perform as others would prefer. But I think that this word also applies to accepting my expression as enough, whether others judge it so or not.
I remember when I was in elementary school I loved to work on my paintings. And at one point, probably around grade five or six, there was an art competition for our grade. I spent time before school and at every recess working diligently on perfecting a landscape that would be entered for the competition. I put all of my heart and soul into that picture. And it was eliminated in the first round of competition—just picked up and placed aside, for a reason I would never learn, in the pile of rejected art. It broke me.
Having my expression judged as unworthy hurt me. Deeply.
And that wasn’t the first time, though it stands out as a stellar example.
I remember working so hard on penmanship—practicing the letters over and over and over—and having a big “unsatisfactory” mark on my report card anyway. I remember sitting alone at a table during the lunch recess and attempting to be faster in the timed math quizzes, and never improving. I remember working tirelessly to memorize spelling words in grades four, five, and six, because I was a terrible speller, and working my way from the lowest level to the highest and then losing the spelling bee because of the word commitment, which I gave an extra “t”. Shattered over and over by the ways I tried and failed, I didn’t give up like you might imagine I would. I kept trying. But I kept failing. And it wasn’t that I failed because I wasn’t skilled or creative or capable, but it was failure because I expressed myself in ways that weren’t what others desired from me. Dark paintings, a loud voice, not the right height for the part, a penchant for modern when what we want is classical, playing by ear instead of reading the notes, and on and on and on. I was too much, or too little, or too big, or too small, or too raw, or too stiff, or too…
I was never quite right. My expressions were never quite right.
So, I stopped telling the truth. I stopped expressing myself truly and deeply and passionately. I started being what was expected and acceptable, and in the process I stopped being me. I stopped knowing me, in many ways.
I did begin to write again, in those secret notebooks, after a book I was reading encouraged me to look back at my childhood self and to try and remember what she loved. As a woman in her twenties, who had a toddler of her own, I finally looked back and saw that I loved to climb trees and to play with my easy-bake oven and to dance around and to act in plays and to draw and to paint and to sing and to express art in all sorts of ways. One of the first things I wrote was that list of things that I loved as a child, and inadvertently, I sparked the knowledge that I love to write. I loved to tell stories. I loved to say all the things. But I was silenced by modern academic practices and the idea that performing well was more important than the trying and the expression and the feeling of creating.
So, today I stand as one who still, ultimately, judges every word and every post and every page and every canvas and every project and every single thing about her work with harshness and perfectionism, because I can’t seem to be that child who loves to do the things and say the things, even though I now have full knowledge of her and what she wants and its importance in being whole as an adult woman. Because I am her and she is me and that which was silenced needs to find its voice once more.
I am learning that what is excellent is not, necessarily, performing in ways that meet the expectations of others, or some arbitrary standards, or to the public perception of success. What is excellent is being free to express the whole of me, and to say and do and create with that freedom. Expression itself is excellent.
It is our right to express things, in theory—freedom of speech. But somewhere along the line that “freedom” started to mean the ability to promote the status quo, in the minds of many. And true freedom of expression is lost to us. Offering the whole story, or having the narrative be told by the ones who experience the events firsthand, or allowing the narrative to change based on new information, or letting all voices be heard and judged with equal merit and weight, or just listening to a new perspective is practically non-existent. What we offer instead is the acceptance of that which meets our criteria and the rejection of all else. People get put in the pile of rejected art, without ever knowing the reason. Nations get put in the pile of rejected expression. Religions get put in the pile. Races get put in the pile. Redheads get put in the pile. All sorts of arbitrary conditions now threaten to put you in the pile of rejected expression, because you didn’t meet the standard of expectations.
And I have yet to figure out who created the standard of expectations. My best guess would be white, male, heterosexual evangelicals in positions of power or with wealth…or both. Because patriarchal heteronormative expressions with straight lettering and correct math seem to be accepted above all. (Well, the math is questionable, because things like the number of shooting deaths correlating to the number of accessible handguns seem to be frequently ignored or misrepresented.) Because things that declare the name of Jesus seem to be accepted above all (even when Jesus himself NEVER SAID THOSE THINGS). Because things that make rich white guys more rich seem accepted above all. Because “traditional values” like the racism and oppression of the 1950’s seem to be accepted above all. Basically anything that promotes the white, male, heterosexual evangelical with power or wealth or both is accepted above all, so it is safe to assume they are the ones writing the rule book on acceptable expression.
But regardless of who created the standard of expectations, we need not appeal to that standard. We are capable and skilled and creative whether the current standards say so or not.
And we ALL spent time as children creating blobs with legs and calling them Grandpa, so we all have the capacity to create without the linear expectations of an alphabet controlling the outcome. We have enough imagination to flood the world with expectation-breaking media! We have the ability to sing and dance and climb and paint our way into a new world, where each of us is enough, and where nobody gets put in the pile of rejected expression, but every narrative is told and every story is honored and heard.
Rich, straight, white guys don’t get to tell us what to say. Mothers that don’t know how to compliment us without adding “but…” on the end don’t get to tell us what to say. Teachers who care more about an Oxford comma than a beautiful expression of life don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it. Judges at the grade six art competition don’t get to tell us what to say or how to say it. We can take back our right to speak, and use it as a form of expression that sets the world ablaze.
I think often of people who set the world ablaze with their expressions. Organizers, poets, composers, pastors or priests or popes, writers, philosophers, politicians, bloggers, and parents or teachers or mentors who let the truth of their stories and ideas flow freely and who influenced people or events or movements or generations with their expression are my heroes. And even the writers of the super hero comics use creative expressions to offer us ideas of justice and peace and good. (Those are some of my favorite expressions.) Any voice that counters the violence and injustice of the patriarchal heteronormative narrative that is so pervasive in our society and world at present is heroic and beautiful and good, in my opinion. Because every incidence of counter-expression is a little nudge toward true freedom. Every example of free expression fights against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo. And I am all about fighting against oppression and fascism and maintaining the status quo.
I think my childhood art expressed that fight, regardless of whether anyone understood such art. The pictures were dark because my life was painful, and my voice was loud because I needed to be heard, and the raw me was too much because it expressed a difficult to bear narrative, and the stiff me was too guarded and kept because I recognized the way the raw me caused people to flee. And the truth of my self and my story was locked behind closed doors for many years.
As my young self emerges, and as my art emerges, and as my story emerges, I am still met, at times, with judgments and shaming and rejections and people who would prefer all of it stay hidden. But that doesn’t break me anymore.
My story and my expression and my art have become stronger than the voices of dissent and disagreement.
I have begun to see the excellence in my expression as expression. I have begun to travel a road toward recognition of my right and my need to place my feelings on paper and to act them out with my body’s movements and to paint them on canvas and to craft them in various ways, and toward recognizing my desire and my intent and my action in doing so as excellent.
Just because you don’t fit in with the normative standard of the society doesn’t mean that you are not excellent. It might mean that the normative standard of your society is shit!
So, to inspire you, and to affirm me, here is a list of excellence to get you thinking about your own excellent self and expressions:
The Excellence of Christy
- Christy makes excellent soup
- Christy has excellent toes—super cute ones
- Christy is an excellent painter
- Christy makes excellent baked goods
- Christy is an excellent advocate for her own health and wellness
- Christy decorates cakes with excellence
- Christy finds excellent clearance sales to create a cheap but excellent wardrobe
- Christy excels at writing well and beautifully
- Christy is an excellent dancer
- Christy excels at napping
- Christy has excellent listening skills
- Christy excels at showing compassion to others
- Christy crafts excellent, diplomatic, and kind Facebook comment rebuttals
- Christy is an excellent friend
- Christy excels at talking on the phone for hours
- Christy is excellent at finding value in objects others cast off
- Christy excels at treating the marginalized like they are human
- Christy navigates public transit (with one hand and two grocery bags) with excellence
- Christy is an excellent researcher, teacher, and student
- Christy gave birth to an excellent child and became an excellent parent
- Christy excels at seeking assistance when shit gets difficult
- Christy is excellent at getting others to rally around a cause she finds important
- Christy has an excellent singing voice
- Christy excels at inventing songs throughout her day, so it seems as though she lives in a musical
- Christy excels at watching musicals
- Christy excels at swallowing a handful of pills at one time
- Christy performs Harry Potter quizzes with excellence
- Christy draws excellent self-portraits
- Christy is excellent at cleaning up after her dog, and at feeding him too many table scraps
- Christy is excellent at not defining her sexuality
- Christy excels in finding partners just slightly less neurotic than the last
- Christy excels at learning tasks very quickly
- Christy is excellent at pinning items she will never create to Pinterest
- Christy excels at making lists about how excellent she is (Just kidding…that was actually kind of difficult, but a good exercise, nonetheless, and one I think you should also try—only about you, not me, of course, and then go out and express yourself in those excellent ways! I’m going to make some soup and take a nap.)