Today I went to services at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I needed to have a heart-to-heart with God, and even though I’m not Christian, I love that Cathedral. It teems with wondrous, heart-full energy. It’s full of the loving intelligence of God, and of the sacred intention of a positive community. It’s easy for me to feel close to the Divine there.

I sat and prayed. I had a lot of people to pray for, not least of whom was myself. This was a lengthy and earnest prayer. I paused only to take in the sermon. It turned out to be a rather excellent lecture on Not Losing Heart–which I really needed to hear. Perhaps the Creator, King of the Universe, meant for me to attend today? I sat up straighter and turned my head to the left to look at the Very Reverend Kowalski as he spoke.

Out of the periphery of my eye, I caught sight of the older lady diagonally behind me staring at me. She was also scribbling furiously on her leaflet. Naturally, my curiosity was aroused. I managed to cast my eyes down unobtrusively to see what she was up to. She was sketching, actually. Sketching me.

I couldn’t help but smile, and then hope my smile didn’t throw off her efforts. Because while she was sketching me in the morning at church, my husband is sculpting me at home, in the evenings.

Sabin isn’t the first artist I ever posed for. I spent a few weeks in Paris in June, and part of the reason for going to Paris was to look for some photographs taken of me when I was young. I heard they ended up in a gallery there. For a long time I was terrified that those photos would turn up and shame me publicly. Now I’m 50 and I don’t embarrass as easily. I would be pleased to see what I looked like all those decades ago, before three children. I’d be proud to think I was once so gracefully shaped.

I haven’t just been sketched, sculpted, painted, and photographed. A musician once claimed I was the inspiration for a sweet pop song. A poet claimed some of his poems were about me. A novelist told me that a character in his novel was based on me.

This is not because I’m special, because I’m not. It’s because I hang out with fellow artists, and we influence each other. It’s context.

With this experience as a muse, I’ve come to understand that it’s never me who is being sketched, sculpted, photographed, written or sung about. It’s the artist’s own projections onto me that are the Subject. I’m just a convenient clothes-hanger on which the artist is hanging his own creativity.

Life mirrors art, when it comes to projections, which can be gluey and trap us like insects in a web, if we aren’t conscious enough to glide free. I think of my former husband and his family, who never once perceived me in the twenty years we were together. It wasn’t until I was free of him, and them, that I had a chance to discover just how much I’d let their projections define and confine me.

For example, my ex-husband was fond of telling me that I had no friends. It was a snarky refrain of his, and of his family’s. Once my former mother-in-law even said to me, “I know you don’t like people….” At the time I stared at her in total astonishment that she had gotten me so wrong. And that she was so willing to put me down that way. But that kind of contempt for me was constant, and built into their family culture.

I stayed as long as I did in the face of their contempt, so that’s on me.

When I finally got away from those people, it took a few years, and then I suddenly realized that I had a lot of friends. I was praying for them today, which is why it was such a lengthy prayer session.

I have recent friends who are sweet and fun (Lori, are you reading?). I have friends of a few years to a decade, some of whom are very precious to me. (Yes, Michelle, you are one of those!) And I have long-time friends of a few decades. I got to see Gerda at the beginning of the month, Geoffrey two weeks ago, and Paul is passing through NYC and staying overnight at my apartment this week. He owes me dinner because I helped him build his website. I’m really looking forward to that, and I’m ordering dessert.

I am so lucky. I love many people.

But I had to break free of the constraints of other people’s projections. When I did that, finally and after much anguish, I could stand on the outside and watch their mental process. It’s like looking through the glass porthole in a laundromat washer, watching the towels spin furiously. That’s liberation.

Not that I’m an enlightened person. I just get hard-earned moments of liberation, now and then. Totally worth living for, they are!

But the moral of this story about clothes-hangers and artists is: Standing for other people’s projections isn’t always as benign as wearing purple ribbons in your hair and being photographed nude. You have to discern. You have to chose carefully what you’re going to allow to be hung on you, to the extent that you can.

Eleanor Roosevelt said something about how no one can put you down without your consent, but that’s simple-minded and reductive. Her words are actually a blame-the-victim defense against feeling the authentic human vulnerability and suffering of another human being. She said that, as people do when they quote her, so as not to be bothered by someone else’s pain. To dismiss someone who has already been harmed.

The truth is that we are all porous to each other, even the people who don’t seem to be. We all influence each other profoundly, in ways both obvious and invisible. Tacitly and out loud. We make an impact on each other all the time. We’re all hanging garments on each other all the time, and some of those garments are like a great black dress, flattering and uplifting. Some of them are constricting and can literally make us ill.

So we learn to choose wisely, and to detach ourselves from the clothes-hanger other people use for their own purposes. Maybe that’s how we keep our heart whole.


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