i feel like the older i get, the less i know, even though i see more and feel more and laugh more and hope more. uncertainty is terrifying, and i do my best to live in it without having a complete meltdown every night. my scheduled, driven personality often leaves little room for patience with the unknown, and it’s hard for me to live in the mess. my therapist says that health lives in the mess, and in acting school (god, i hate that term) we were always encouraged to live in the mess, because that’s where humanity and life and love and hurt live.
i saw my favorite painting for the first time two summers ago while i was studying shakespeare in oxford. it hangs in the penultimate room of the east wing on the third floor of the victoria & albert, my grandmother’s— and now my— favorite museum. danbury’s “disappointed love” depicts a weeping woman at a lake, with love letters dancing on the surface of a dark pond and a portrait of her lost lover dropped adjacent to her right hip. the painting is almost lost in a large room of stoic men, burning landscapes, dogs, and women caged in their own bodies. but she found me, and it was the first time my mind went quiet, the first time it pressed pause.
i stood in front of what felt like a reflection of an aching heart lodged inside of me, one wrought with guilt and, well, disappointment. for the first time, i was so attracted to a painting’s life that i wept and could not get myself to walk away from it. at the time, i was in an abusive relationship, one born from the tail end of another. i was far away from home with a tribe of new souls burning to make art and live in the mess, in a foreign country whose language i spoke and whose spirit seeped into my pores. i was going into my senior year of college and taking time off from acting to digest three years of training, a period of time i took advantage of to spend with horses, the only thing that got me through training and school and heartbreak and assault in what feels like a whole piece.
the dexterity of art to be simultaneously by the artist and by the viewer is incredible. i often spiral into a never-ending series of questions about art and its life and its value and its susceptibleness to becoming commercialized or devalued in some way: is it art because the artist said so, or because the viewer decided it was? when does art cross the threshold of commercialism, and who makes this decision? is art for commercial use still art? is there art in commerciality? is art still art when its forgotten?
when i went back to the victoria & albert this past thanksgiving while in london for a family wedding, i did not find the painting immediately. i’d gone back to that room with the playful dogs, stoic men, and caged women, and i didn’t find her at first. my eyes manically blazed through each row of paintings. i hadn’t realized how busy the room was, how the paintings on the wall seemed to push by each other like times square crowds to make themselves seen, to bring themselves to the forefront of our viewing to not be forgotten so that they were still art. i couldn’t find her. i worried that she had disappeared, that the museum’s directory had forgotten to tell me that she’d moved to a personal collection, that she was on a tour of sorts, or that she’d been put into storage to be forgotten by everyone who didn’t know her.
i wanted to drown in her world, to sit by that pond and smell the moss under my dress with a portrait of the relationships i’d finally found the courage to leave, portraits of partners who’d made me feel so small and friends who left without a single explanation, who’d made me feel like my heart was somehow flawed, that my mess and my health and my lack thereof were somehow subservient to the worlds they’d created for themselves where everything happened to them and somehow everything was someone else’s fault.
and then i found her. my panic subsided.
i did not weep. my mind did not go quiet. my life seemed so swell from the ground up into my face, and i was suddenly ripped from the present and thrown into the experience of who i was when i first walked into that room in 2017. i could hear everything since i’d seen her echoing in my bones and my heart. i thought of the girl i was when i first saw her, having felt so much already, and not knowing just how much she would feel over the course of the next year and a half.
you know when you go back home after going to college and getting your first apartment and falling in love for the first time since you were sixteen, and suddenly it feels like you never left that body, one that ached to get into your dream school or cried with laughter while you pulled an all-nighter with your best friend just to listen to the song of the sun rising in a purple, summer mist; the feeling of unmitigated fullness when you realized exactly what your heart wanted—and still wants— to do for the rest of its life? it’s like when you find your old ipod shuffle (ya know, an apple product you could plug a normal headset jack into?) and taylor swift’s “fifteen” comes on and you are transported back to a time when you weren’t overwhelmingly sad some mornings for no reason, a time when being an adult felt so exciting and way too far away, when your mom wasn’t sick and a friend you loved hadn’t left without leaving a note and you hadn’t watched your horse die.
the girl i was when i first saw my favorite painting felt so near to me again. she was standing right next to me, our arms practically brushing against the other’s. i suddenly remembered what it felt like to be her, the overwhelming feeling of not knowing how or who she wanted to love, how she let herself be sucked into a relationship that hurt more than soothed. i could hear her telling me that i would start to make careful choices for myself, that i would begin to love myself, to say yes to the mess and not be afraid to drown in it. she reminded me of how i’d learn to accept the things i cannot control and to change the way i love myself. i loved her for everything she was and the place she’d given me to start from; but i was glad i’d grown out of her, or at least from her.
the biggest question i’ve been asking myself recently is about how art evolves, how the way we grow from sown seeds planted in lives that were fleeting, from friendships that hurt, and from some of our most joyful moments changes the lives we give art. i believe art has an eternal lifespan, that it grows the way the girl standing next to me did. i know the answer to my earlier question about art’s life dying when it is forgotten and obsolete, because there is always going to be someone who remembers it; a grandchild who carries a picture of it with them because it reminds them of their grandmother who passed away the morning of their prom, like the photos of nana she keeps in her freshman dorm room because it feels like continuing to know her. there is art in the way breath dances off of a horse’s muzzle on cold february mornings, in the way strangers spend five of their seven hours on a plane to england talking about art, about hallucinogenic fish in alaska, about the blossoming relationships they’re excited for and scared of, about disappointed love. there is beauty in the friends— new and old— whose conversation transitions seamlessly from pictures of horses with human features to their synchronized love of art, their passion for it. there is beauty in breathing through the annoyance towards the guy on your long flight to england wanting to talk to you about his dissertation on hymnal music coming from hebrew text, and then talking for five hours like you’d known each other your whole lives, in staying in touch for months afterwards through long emails in lieu of the letters that you could not stupidly send between new york and sydney.
i imagine i will look back on who i am today in a year and feel her standing next to me in a café uptown she was twenty minutes late to the forty-five minutes she’d allocated for a first date with someone who made her feel more alive and comfortable than anyone she’d dated since the first time she fell in love when she was sixteen. i imagine she will stand next to me when i give myself space to miss a horse i lost too soon on march 12th of this year, unembarrassed of how much the loss affected me, careless of how other people perceive and judge my loss. i imagine she will stand next to me every time i thank fate that my mom finally listened to her body within hours of dying and gotten herself to the hospital, when i am grateful she went into remission, every time i get to go home and hug her so hard that i don’t even need to tell her how much i love her. i hope the girl i am in four years (or whenever) stands next to me the next year at my wedding, that she stands next to my daughter on her first day of kindergarten, and that who my daughter was on her first day of kindergarten stands next to me as i drop her off at her freshman dorm.
i used to be afraid of living in the mess. that is not to say that i enjoy it—it still sucks. there is nothing fun about crying on your couch, swimming in disappointment, knowing that things would have worked out if it weren’t for timing. there is nothing fun about coming to grips with giving a horse back, how it feels so different to share her, to only ride her three days a week instead of six, how it sometimes takes you twenty minutes to get out of your car at the barn to force yourself to do something you used to need more than breathing, how you still love it that much even though the clouded humidity of depression make it harder to breathe; no matter how lucky you feel to be able to still see her. there is nothing fun about realizing that sometimes you have to drown to remember how to breathe.
my heart has always beaten for art. i don’t want to do anything else— no backups plans, no fall backs, no second choices. living a life with art is incredibly fulfilling, and extremely difficult. in contrast to a, for lack of a better term, “real person job,” being told no on an audition is not your resumé hearing no. a “no” in art is, “you’re not the human being, the heart, the face i want for my project", and hearing that kind of “no” multiple times a week can sometimes feel disheartening.
however, a “no” or a “maybe later” can also light a fire so hot you are almost paralyzed by your passion and love and need for art. i knew in my bones that there was absolutely nothing else i was meant to do when a desperate need to create, to express myself, and to live in the mess was the first thing i wanted to do when i was aching this week. it was a profound feeling, and i suddenly wasn’t so worried about the things i couldn’t control.
i don’t believe in new year’s resolutions. i don’t believe in keeping score, of holding onto things you cannot control and blaming everyone else for your own folly. i believe in a life of wondering, in swimming in the mess, in a life of not giving second chances. i believe in art and love and hurt and hope. i believe in the full life i have ahead of me, and i look forward to meeting all of the women i am growing from.