The Masterpiece Within

As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground.  And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.

My boyfriend was in town for two weeks.  As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows.  I really enjoy that aspect of relationships.  So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park.  My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything.  The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.

It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor.  He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido.  He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer.  So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose.  I am not known for my athletic ability.  I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory.  I don’t usually like competing.  I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles.  I feel awkward most of the time.

As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win.  I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him.  Except I smoked him.  By almost an entire body length.  Everyone was shocked including him.  I wasn’t.  Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.

I was a competitive swimmer in my youth.  Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer.  A “prodigy”.  I hate that word, but that’s what he called me.  Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer.  Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally.  Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all.  Thus began the pressure and the time commitment.  I trained 8 hours a day.  It was brutal.  I swam because I loved it.  I did not love training.

Something else, however, was going on.  Mike was a pedophile.  Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit.  He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more.  I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated.  Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility.  I quit training altogether that day.  Without an explanation.  My family was extremely angry and held it against me.  The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word.  My high school coach? He was livid.  No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training.  Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question:  “Why would you throw away your gift?”

I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age.  I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men.  My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive.  Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation.  I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened.  I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”

It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool.  My daughters saw me swim.  My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that.  My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore.  And, I remembered.  I never even discussed any of this in therapy.  It’s not something I think about.  It feels like a gossamer memory.  Like it almost happened to someone else.  Almost.

Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years.  What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”).  Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales.  At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death.  His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father.  What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting.  He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader.  Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.

But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters.  I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:

“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.

Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.

Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.

At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.

I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.

This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.

The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous.[1] Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.[2]

This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”[3]

The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)

I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well.  As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts.  I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.

After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me.  In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person.  I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers.  For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard.  The social injury was real as was the shame.  They were missing information.

And this phenomenon has followed me.  My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother.  No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors.  So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”.  A “quitter” of relationships.

When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute.  A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time.  Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker.  It is ludicrous.

What’s my point?

We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings.  Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.

Velvet_Elvis_Presley_painting.jpg

We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized.  Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time.  So, what do you do then?

Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”.  I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high.  Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching.  I already had a father who had done that to me.  I didn’t want to relive it in the pool.  What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy.  I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me.  I left it behind and also left the experience intact.  I was not a quitter.  I was an overcomer.  Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity.  It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity.  It helped me form a stronger sense of self.

We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned.  In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us.  Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love.  In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first.  And that means taking a very personal inventory.  We may not be who we once were.  It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” 
Oscar Wilde

 

*name changed

 

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “The Masterpiece Within

  1. I love your writing, and especially the last paragraph here.

    “It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.”

    I am not good at understanding the full depth of metaphors, but I feel your words speak to me in a profound way. I am not who I once was, so I will be contemplating the wisdom of your words this week. Thank you.

    Take care,
    BR

    ps. saddened to hear of more abuse from your childhood, but pleased your children found the hidden masterpiece they did not know existed.

    • As always, BR, I am so so happy when something I write benefits someone else. It redeems the past. It’s like emotional alchemy. I hope that you find some time for contemplation. I know that you have had a very meaningful journey this year.

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