Reflecting on My Life with Christina Baker Kline’s a piece of the world and Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World

I was inspired to read this poem by Emily Dickinson after finishing a piece of the world by Christina Baker Kline:

Learning From The Homes Of Famous Writers

“This is my letter to the World that never wrote to me”

“This is My Letter to the World”, goes like this:

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

Kline’s a piece of the world revolves around the life of Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s most renowned masterpiece, Christina’s World (you can find it at the Museum of Modern Art, 5th fl). Margaret Steiger, a fellow peer and art lover, also my supervisor at MoMA!, recommended me this book as she knew how much I loved Christina’s World.

Christina suffered from a life long illness (initially thought as having polio, modern day neurologists believe she actually suffered from Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, which causes progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation) that started to render the nerves in her arms and legs pretty much kaput as she entered adulthood.

In this novel, the character Christina (will now move forward referring to novel’s character as ‘Christina’ and the real Christina as ‘Christina Olson’), coming into her teenage years, and with a body severely limited in movement from the effects of a mysterious illness’ onset at toddler-hood, begins to develop a curiosity and ferocity of mind, and this coincides with her discovery and subsequent exploration of Emily Dickinson’s words at school.

Excerpts

“I agree. Rest is stupid. I am tired of this narrow bed, the slice of window above it. I want to be outside, running through the grass, climbing up and down the stairs. When I fall asleep, I am careering down the hill, my arms outstretched and my strong legs pumping, grasses whipping against my calves, steady on toward the sea, closing my eyes and tilting my chin toward the sun, moving with ease, without pain, without falling. I wake in my bed to find the sheet damp with sweat.”


“MRS. CROWLEY TOLD me once—the nicest thing anybody has ever said to me—that I’m one of the brightest students she’s ever taught. Long before the others, I have finished my reading and arithmetic. She’s always giving me extra work to do and books to read. I appreciate the compliment, but maybe if I could run and play like the other kids, I would be as impatient and distracted as they are. The truth is, when I’m immersed in a book I’m less aware of the pain in my unpredictable arms and legs.”


“I’m so tired of this mutinous body that doesn’t move the way it should. Or the low thrumming ache that’s never entirely absent. Of having to concentrate on my steps so I don’t fall, of my ever-present scabs and bruises. I’m tired of pretending that I’m the same as everyone else. But to admit what it’s really like to live in this skin would mean giving up, and I’m not ready to do that.”


“’Some memories are realities and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” Maybe so, I think. Maybe my memories of sweeter times are vivid enough, and present enough, to overcome the disappointments that followed. And to sustain me through the rest.'”


“My chin drips blood, my wrists throb, I am facedown in the wet, soiled dress it took me weeks to sew. The skirt is bunched up round my hips, my bloomers and misshapen legs exposed. Lifting myself slowly on my elbows, I survey my torn bodice. All at once I am so tired of this—of the constant threat of humiliation and pain, the fear of exposure, of trying to act like I’m normal when I’m not—that I burst into tears. No, I am not all right, I want to say. I am fouled, degraded, ashamed. A burden and an embarrassment.”

On Christina’s first experience with love:

“It feels as if my life is moving forward at two separate speeds, one at the usual pace, with its predictable rhythms and familiar inhabitants, and the other rushing ahead, a blur off color and sound and sensation.”


Reflecting on Christina’s World

I have felt a deep connection with Christina’s World, ever since I first encountered Christina’s World as a university student.

20200524_091845

The work is an incredible sight and experience; numerous people from all over the world will tell you so as well: painted is a young, youthful girl, in stark contrast against the muted landscape of a field and barn/farmhouse. Your eyes settle intensely on the seemingly feeble, yet remarkably dignified, stoic, and bold girl in pink dress.cri_000000165457

Personal Reflections

I was very sick when I was 13 and in my teenage years. The utter prison I felt like I was in, of not being able to wield my body at will, not being able to do things other kids do nor be carefree was a formative experience in my youth.

Thinking about my future was scary.

The picture my mind drew of my life was monstrous; It was only filled with more ifs, doubts and and despondence from wondering whether I’d ever be able to live the life I wish I had instead of living through it with a body I abhorred.

The memories do not go away easily //

Having to stay a couple nights in the St. Judes hospital deprived of sleep and watching Shakespeare in Love and The Man in the Iron Mask with my mother who bravely tried to stay awake with me and laid on a cot bed by me.

Stubbornly demanding and begging I get my license like all my other high school friends and be allowed to drive with my parents in car, and my father finally relenting, only to find myself losing control of the wheel, with my foot off the pedal and my hands fallen to their sides [and off the wheel] one day driving my family.

Crossing the road, beginning to feel time slow, seeing my dad not far behind me running to catch me before I blacked out.


I was engaged with this painting before I had learned of its background story and the life of Christina Olson.

Looking at her was as if I were seeing myself. Or seeing what I’d have liked to see in myself back then: a portrait of strength, boldness, and ferocity– dignified living.

I stood staring at her for a very long time.

And I’d come back to it again, and again, and again. As if I was drinking from a well.

Fast forward to 2020, having finished this book, which was a light and lovely spin-off and depiction of Christina Olson’s life, I find myself glad to be seeing Christina again, anew.

More Excerpts

“The House of the Seven Gables. ‘So much of mankind’s varied experience had passed there that the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart.’”


Andrew Wyeth & Christina Olson:

“‘ I wanted to show the contrast with your skin. To highlight you sitting there.’

Now that we’re having this conversation, I realize that I am a little angry. ‘I look like I’m in a coffin with a lid half shut.’

He laughs a little, as he can’t believe I might be upset.

I stare at him evenly.

Running his hand through his hair, he says, ‘I was trying too show your…’ He hesitates. ‘Dignity. Solemnity.’

‘Well, I guess that’s the problem. I don’t think of myself as solemn. I didn’t think you did, either.’

‘I don’t. Not really. It’s just a moment. And it’s not really ‘you.’ Or ‘me.’ Despite what you think.’ His voice trails off. Seeing me struggle with the heavy oven door, he comes over and opens its for me, then slides the baking tray of biscuits in. ‘I think it’s about the house. The mood of it.’ He shuts the oven door. ‘Do you know what I mean?’

‘You make its seem so…’ I cast about for the right word. ‘I don’t know Lonely.’

He sighs. ‘Isn’t it, sometimes?’

For a moment there’s silence between us.

I reach for a dishrag and wipe my floury hands.

‘So how do you think of yourself?’ he asks.

‘What?’

‘You said you don’t think of yourself as solemn. So how do you think of yourself?’

It’s a good question. How do I think of myself?

The answer surprises us both.

‘I think of myself as a girl,’ I say.”


“EVERY WEEK OR ten days a thick letter in a white envelope with a two-cent stamp arrives in the mail. He writes from the library, from the dining hall, from the narrow wooden desk in his dormitory room, by the light of a gas lamp after his rugby-playing, gin-guzzling roommate has gone to sleep. Each envelope, a package of words to feed my word-hungry soul, provides a portal into a world where students linger in wood-paneled classrooms to talk to professors, where entire days can be spent in a library, where what you write and how you write it are all you need to worry about. I imagine myself in his place: strolling across campus, peering up at thick-paned, glowing windows at dusk, going to expensive dinners with friends in Harvard Square, where the waiters wear tuxedos and look down their noses at the unkempt students, and the students don’t care.”

When It Comes To Looking At The Future

There’s a model (originally economics) called hyperbolic discounting, which speaks to the human tendency of choosing a reward now over wanting the greater reward that will happen later. In liberal application, this law can allude to our relative inability to see beyond the seeable, comprehensible distance over the things up close: what is happening or might happen in the immediate future or present. I believe this rings true for the scenario we find ourselves in in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The pain, the discomfort, and the anxieties of the circumstances we find ourselves in are absolutely real. But, we (I) can choose to see beyond for what could happen that could be greater and more meaningful in magnitude over the mess in the immediate– see the good being written even now.

The motifs and the arc defining this story remain to be set in stone. We don’t know what lies ahead for us. We don’t know what the larger picture will be. I’m not referring to the next 2 or 3 years. I’m talking about the next 10, 20, and 30 years.

We must press on in hope, thinking and choosing to look to more hopeful outcomes– to where the real story might be. And in the meantime, be present and do as as much as we can for our family, our friends, and our people.

Some quotes from my journal that I’ve leaving for added contemplation:

“You cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow, it is kept from you.
You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. It’s right use…is a matter of the highest urgency.”
– Arnold Bennett
“We become, neurologically, what we think.”
– Nicholas Carr

2019: Mental Health Awareness Month

Let me tell you a bit of my story.
I had some scary things happen to me in my life: I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder in the 7th grade, was sexually assaulted by a family relative in the 10th grade, had my parents divorce after a traumatic narrative that spanned years, and was raped  my first year out of college.

This in tandem with my naturally emotions driven self brought forth a very unbalanced, and very unhappy Susan for a lot of my adolescence and into my early twenties. I could be happy and “on,” yes, but I was also severely unhappy.


I turned to a quick phase of substance abuse in the last year of high school into my first year of college, to control the control I did not feel I had.

There were certain years, when I did not want to live.
There were seasons I’d stand at the platform of a subway station in NYC and despite having just come out of a splendid date with a friend from NYU or with someone I was dating, I’d dissolve inside, trying to hold back the anxiety attack that was coming, only to barely control it or succumb to it and when the train finally pulled in, I’d enter the train heaving for air, so so relieved I was a bit of a pussycat and scared of jumping. There were also more times that I’d just cry in the train ride home, head down.
In 2013-2014, I was suicidal.
I remember thinking simply out of sheer despair:
I’m so scared of dying.
I’m so scared of dying.
But I feel so much pain.
I was also thinking
I don’t want to just live.
I want to LIVE.
God met me in this dark, dark place back then, in the latter half of 2014.
I then with all the courage I could muster, began to open up to some friends and to my family.

In 2015 I made a promise to myself, that I would not live this way, and 2015 was the beginning of my recovery and fight against the depressive thoughts and feelings I felt and heard in my head every single day.
In 2019, I am living and working to fulfill that promise to myself to live life at its fullest.
And now I am happy as a clam 🙂 (is that the right American phrase?)
For the past 4 years I’ve worked really hard to get a semblance of the joy others feel, and I’ve gotten there, even farther than I’d ever hoped.
I made a lot of mistakes in the process, but no one is perfect, and I was really trying.
(for example, falling in love with someone in early 2016, and not being able to handle the intimacy, or 2) not having been able to appreciate pleasure of touch earlier – I’m still working on that now, but feel like I’m on the tail end of it! I enjoy my romances now, thank goodness :)When I was younger, I’d feel tons of fear when a man touched me and would freeze inside and panic).
The healing is slow, and there are a lot more stories I want to share [and some justice I want to see in the world, if God wills it and it’s wise], but I will share them when I am ready to share those stories. All in their own time. One day, I’m going to be strong enough to call my perpetrators by name. For now, I’m going to work on continually healing and helping others lift themselves up too.
I don’t share this story with you because I’m over it, or because I’m stronger than you. Revisiting things like this make me quite sad. But I feel convicted enough and strong enough at this moment to share in order to encourage and stand with anyone reading this. It’s not easy, and for those who’ve had illnesses for a long time, I understand the hardened nature of the heart that comes with.
I believe that the world would be a better place if we all began to share and stand with each other more and hide, covet, and cover a little less. The world will not crumble down and your conservative family or community might gasp and make you feel shame, but who cares. That shame they make you feel is a lie.
It is your life one “wild, and precious life”, as Mary Oliver says.
On an overarching note, for anyone dealing with any present or past trauma, I want to tell you earnestly that there are ways out and you really won’t have to go back, that there are people all around you here to stand with you if you only extend a hand.
I’m with you.
So here’s to mental health awareness month.