“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.” 

― Georgia O’Keeffe

I’m reading a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe right now, and I have to take it in small doses because she blows me away. I cannot handle her all at once. Ahead of her time, confident, thought-provoking, the story of her life is something I have had to let simmer.

I read the quote that begins this post a lot. I’m not there, but I’d like to be. I’m getting there. I used to be a person who hung on every slanted eye or critical comment for days and even weeks. And flattery, though it never hit me quite as hard, would puff me up like some of those birds I paint– the ones cold or scared, feathers poofy, turning their graceful forms into comical caricatures. 

I had a conversation with a man in the gallery recently. With the encouragement of his family, he had taken up painting in retirement. Hesitant to show me his work, he was fraught with disclaimers like “I just started” and “I’m really not that good” to which I immediately responded, “me too.” 

Truthfully, there are many, many worlds in which I’ve just started and I’m not that good. And there are many others where I’m an expert of sorts, where I’m quite good. These worlds exist outside me. I also navigate them internally almost daily. They are both true, both real.

But when I’m at my best, and what I think I eventually said to that novice painter was something like this:

Objectively good or bad– the “in a vacuum” kind doesn’t exist. What matters is that I have offered something to the world at all. Covered in roses or warts or both, I give it away knowing, believing, trusting, and sometimes hoping it has a value, any value. I have given it and let it go. It is my offering, something holy but never perfect. It just is. I don’t give it because my greatness demands it or despite my limitations. I give it out of the most human part of me. 

At my best, I know this to be true. At my best, I am free to let flattery and criticism, insecurity and arrogance go down the same drain. And I am free to paint. Free to grow. Free to feel the joy that is being human.

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