Can They Be the Same?
In The Right Of, Ellen Reiss describes how a woman of any age: [TRO #1559]
This describes what many women feel, and what I certainly felt. I wanted to be liked at all costs and would change my opinions and interests according to the company. By the time I was 20 I had clothes to represent the 9-5 me, the party me, the studious me, the cosmopolitan me, the country & western me. But it became hard to keep track of which “me” I was with which people, and I despaired of knowing who I really was. Inwardly I had a constant knot in the pit of my stomach, feeling that if anybody saw behind the fašade they would see how shallow and artificial I was.
In his Preface to “The Ordinary Doom,” Eli
With all my smiles, I didn't think the people I knew were worthy of knowing me—in fact, I felt I had fooled them and was inwardly scornful. Aesthetic Realism taught me that the reason a woman—or any person—comes to feel people don't deserve to know her is that she's gotten "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things" not herself, which is contempt. And contempt, I've learned, is the biggest impediment to finding out what we feel and showing it.
In this paper describe some of what I've learned, and also discuss some aspects of the life of a 19th century woman who lived on the Kansas plains. Her diary of 40 years illustrates how much this matter has affected women's lives throughout the centuries.
Growing up in Springfield, Missouri, the place where what I felt and showed were most the same was while singing. I liked to sing church hymns such as “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Amazing Grace,” and folk songs like “Shenandoah” and “Red River Valley.” I felt composed when I sang.
But the pleasure of being affected by music and showing it had a formidable rival. My family praised me a lot, and I used it to feel special and superior—the center of their universe. Albums at home were replete with photographs of me—as a laughing baby, the birthday girl, in my new dress on the first day of school, then under the Christmas tree with all the presents, and in my yellow chiffon, recital formal.
I acted like a little princess whose every whim should be catered to, and imagined myself as having long lost parents who were a king and queen. The reality was that my father, Don Ellison, was a well known rancher and my mother, Beverly Burk, a respected nurse. When my father needed my help to vaccinate cattle, I felt this was an unglamorous job me to do and I would die if my friends knew about it! But what I didn’t show, was that I admired the tender and firm way my Dad worked with each little calf, and that I actually had pleasure helping him.
Showing I respected things didn’t have the same pizzazz, though, and as I got older and became aware of my effect on men, I would calculate my every move according to who was observing me. I saw no relation between this and how I increasingly disliked myself. At night alone I would make ugly faces in the mirror, calling myself a fake, but I didn’t know how to change.
Meanwhile, my growing interest in drawing and sculpture seemed to be in another world. I studied at Southwest Missouri State University and later here in New York at the School of Visual Arts. I felt proud as I worked to be exact, drawing, for example, a fern—it was both contained and expansive, as its graceful fronds arched up and outward from the confines of a pot. I didn’t know what I would later learn: this principle stated by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other; each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The fern, in its very structure, did something I wanted to do, it put together strength and grace, what it showed came from its depth, its roots. I was scared to show what was deep in me. Once, when I was assigned to do a self-portrait for a photography class, I felt so afraid to see myself as an object, that in the photo I was hidden in shadow except for a bit of light on my neck and shoulder.
The gulf between what I showed and who I was inside became wider with every year. More and more I felt the only way I could loosen up and be “myself” was if I had a few drinks. Then, in 1979 at the age of 25, I had the good fortune to begin my study of Aesthetic Realism. In consultations by telephone from Missouri, I was asked questions that were deep, surprising, critical and very kind. For example:
My consultants asked if I had come to some fake arrangement of myself that I put forth and was afraid I'd be "found out," and therefore I attributed motives to people they didn't have. ”Oh yes, I said! How these questions went straight to my center! I began to learn that the way I arranged myself while keeping my feelings under wraps was contempt, and the reason I was so often ill-at-ease and nervous around people; it was also the reason I often felt separate in the midst of a crowd. In The Right Of Ellen Reiss explains:
I speak now about a woman I’ve come to care for, Martha
VanOrsdol Farnsworth. Born in 1867 in Iowa, she moved to the Kansas
frontier around Topeka at age 5, where she lived until her death in 1924.
Beginning at age 14, and for the next 40 years, Martha kept a daily record
of her life, showing her thoughts and feelings about domestic responsibilities,
community happenings and her intimate joys and sorrows—which included
being a young bride, the death of her infant daughter, being widowed at
age 25, and a second marriage to Fred Farnsworth. I am using the
book Plains Woman: The Diary of Martha Farnsworth 1882-1922 edited
by Marlene and Haskell Springer.
She also took painting lessons; was an avid letter writer, and was such a force in her community of Topeka that upon her death the local paper wrote: “What a fine heritage this kindly woman left. The good she did will live for ages.” Part of her good effect was on the 30 boys she taught in Sunday school, who threatened they would quit the church if they couldn’t keep Mrs. Farnsworth as their teacher. She was the chairman of the Good Government Club, and a suffragette working for women to get the right to vote, and a prohibition crusader with Carrie Nation.
As she describes important world happenings—history to us, but to her current events—we see she wants to show her feelings. On November 13, 1918, the day Germany signed a peace treaty ending World War I, she writes with relief and hope:
Yet, she also wrote “I do not read my diaries to anyone, nor allow them read. On these pages is the only place I dare let go of myself.” We see that she had the fight, between wanting to be expressed and interested in the world, and the desire to be hidden and have contempt which Mr. Siegel explained: “distinguishes a self secretly.”
Martha is straightforward describing her covert strategies to get the attentions of young men. Between the ages of 16 and 20 she had many suitors, 3 marriage proposals and was engaged at the same time to two different men. Even though she writes “I wish so many didn’t fall in love with me,” she liked to make mashes, which was the 1880’s way of saying she flirted. When a young man who was engaged to another girl, flirts with her, she writes:
I too liked the power I got from flirting and going after men. In an early consultation I was asked:
The answer was yes. I didn't like myself for having this purpose, and I saw I wanted something so much better.
Martha VanOrsdol too, was not proud of her motives. About a young man, Charlie, she wrote “after the way I treated him last night, I felt ashamed to look at him.” And when John Shaw, who she described as “the cute little fellow with such a homely name,” proposes marriage, she writes, “I am Oh! So happy… I love him so much, yet there is an uneasiness I cannot explain.” Did a large part of her uneasiness come from a purpose to use him for self glory? When a woman has this purpose, I've seen, what she shows outwardly and feels inwardly have to be painfully disjoined. In The Right Of Ellen Reiss explained:
It’s hard to know all that Martha felt about John Shaw, but days after their wedding she writes he is not “the man I thought I was marrying.” There was much pain between them; he apparently had a drinking problem and became progressively ill with consumption. Martha also suffered through three miscarriages and the death of their 5 month old daughter. At this time she wrote:
“A person who cannot show herself," Mr. Siegel wrote, "is a person whose life is incomplete.”
Then, a year after her husband's death she married Fred Farnsworth, and judging from her diary, this marriage of 29 years was much happier. He seemed to be a means of her showing herself more truly. In one diary entry she wrote: “6:15 pm upstairs writing this, Fred came to me says ‘what are you writing, your diary?’ Gave me a kiss and said “put that in it.”
As I reached my 20’s, I counted on my outward assets and practiced using them to my advantage—tossing my hair at the right moment, flirting with my eyes, affecting the appropriate look--interest, surprise, adoration. But the feeling that if a man could see my thoughts he wouldn’t find me very attractive, haunted me. And the idea of being seen without makeup bothered me so much that I wondered if I could ever be married—I thought I would have to sleep with it on and get up much earlier than my possible husband to redo my face.
Through studying Aesthetic Realism I became a better critic of myself; and I saw that what I really wanted more than all this hiding and fakery was to be known, and to have a good effect on other people, including a man.
Meanwhile, when I met Jaime Torres, though I had changed a good deal, there were still ways I felt that the self I “put forth was better than the private self inside.” In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Eli Siegel asked a young woman concerned about her relationships with men: “Do you want a man to see you as you truly are or as you can arrange yourself?” On a picnic Jaime and I had in Central Park our conversation was a blur to me as I concentrated on how I looked and getting myself poised in just the right way—casually leaning back on my hand. Jaime, a podiatrist originally from Puerto Rico, was also studying Aesthetic Realism and learning that good will for a woman includes criticizing things she has against herself. After observing for some time, he asked me “Are you comfortable sitting that way?”
During our early courtship I had a health concern that affected me very much. I was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition in which the hair falls out in large patches. This was some years ago, and I'm glad to say the condition was temporary; all my hair grew back. But at the time it was terrifying and I didn’t know how to see it. Aesthetic Realism is not medical; it sees the relation of mind and body, philosophically. I respect its loving and strict ethics which strengthened me so much at this time, enabling me to use this situation to be a better, more sincere woman. In one consultation on the subject, my consultants said:
In Self and World Mr. Siegel talks of [the child] Luella Hargreaves, who asks what's underneath her mother’s hair. He said it had to do with Luella wanting to know what goes on in her mother’s thoughts.And they asked:
Consultants: Have you used your hair to conceal your thoughts?
DE: Yes, I think I have.
Consultants: You've been able to have this combination of luxuriant dark and glistening and give a shining appearance [while] underneath you can think that your thoughts are not shining, [that] if people knew them, they wouldn't look beautiful.
[Could this crisis be an] opportunity for you to stop trying to act on the outside in a way that doesn't go along with what you really are and feel on the inside.
I love my consultants for showing me that what was occurring, could be a means of my changing something that for so long I had against myself! Soon after, Jaime and I made a date to see the Matisse Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. That morning I was having a terrible time trying to arrange my hair so that bare areas did not show. I tried scarves and hats and fortunately the use of barrettes temporarily helped solve the problem, but I felt disconcerted and nervous.
Later at the museum I was acting bright and breezy to hide my agitation, which did not go unnoticed by Jaime, who was very kind. When he asked me what was the worst thought I had that day, I saw that I had a choice between hiding and acting like it was no big thing, or showing what I really felt.
As we turned toward the paintings, we were both surprised to see this work of 1919 by Henri Matisse, “Anemones with a Black Mirror.” We spoke about how the painting puts together opposites I was in the midst of—dark and light, hidden and shown, surface and depth, known and unknown.
Jaime’s continued good will endeared him to me and I began to realize that a man could be more interested in how a woman sees, than in an artificial arrangement. I fell in love with him and am so happy that we will soon celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. What we continue to learn in classes taught by Ellen Reiss has us feel closer. With each month I feel I can show myself more and more as a wife, daughter, teacher, and artist in ways I have longed for.
Every work of art, Aesthetic Realism shows, answers in outline the questions of our lives. About one of the great portraits in history—Jan Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” of 1665—on which a recent film is based, we can ask, “Is what she is feeling to herself, what she is showing?”
The expression on her face suggests a depth of thought that seems kind and forthright. She is bright surrounded by dark space; her brightness seems deep. Every inch of this painting is a beautiful oneness of light and shadow.
While her face seems open and without guile, she doesn’t lose her mystery. As she looks over her shoulder, her lips parted as though she is about to speak we feel a serene but energetic composure and forthrightness.
I believe this painting is an illustration of what Ellen Reiss describes in The Right Of:
What a woman feels and what she shows can be the same when her purpose is to know and be known. This is what woman everywhere are yearning for and Aesthetic Realism can make an actuality in their lives.
Originally presented at a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City.