When you’re home at 9pm and the screens are out, reading becomes a thing again. I’ve been reading voraciously over the past couple of weeks, both fiction and non-fiction.
Last night I finished “A Piece of the World” by Christina Baker Kline, a fictionalised portrait of Christina Olson, muse of the painter Andrew Wyeth and subject of the painting “Christina’s World”.
Bound to her family’s farm her entire life by disability, duty and lack of options, the Christina in the book is marked by stubbornness and determination to get on with her life, even as she struggles to accept her lot gracefully. As the world moves on around her family’s farm without touching it (by the late 1940s the Olsons still have neither electricity nor running water), Christina holds on to heartbreak and crushed dreams, and throws herself into never ending housework. Any rare opportunity to leave the farm is dismissed thanks to pride, either through her mother or Christina herself.
As different as the book’s setting is to my life, a lot of it felt oddly familiar. There’s this personality trait that runs in my family: the ability to suffer.
It was strongest in my grandmother, who could suffer anything, but I also see it in my mother and myself. We make it through life’s hardships like anybody else, but we also have this stoic tendency to suffer needlessly – pain that could be treated, relationships that could be ended, living arrangements that could be changed. We grit our teeth and live through whatever life throws at us, not realising, or not wanting to realise, that sometimes we have a say in it.
My grandmother spent her life in a village and lived through the war; I suppose “putting up with it” was ingrained in her, although when I knew her there had come a certain pride to refusing help, beyond the need for self-sufficiency. It was like there was going to be a reward for the person who’d suffered the most: gone through the most discomfort without complaining, had been most cold during the winter, had made the longest, most inconvenient walks to appointments. (For the record, I don’t think there is.)
Her daughters and grandchildren have never seen war (and hopefully never will) and have access to many more comforts than she did. And still, I look at us and sometimes marvel at what we’re willing to put up with. (Actually, it’s my mother who has looked at me many times and told me my threshold for suffering is unbelievable.) As I’m taking this month to reflect, literally, on my life and my choices, I’m realising what a false virtue this is.
I’m fully aware that many people in the world do not have the luxury and privilege of choice that I do. But what struck me in the book, and when I look at my own family, is an incomprehensible tendency to refuse the opportunities that present themselves, simply out of pride or the false notion that there’s nobility in suffering for the sake of suffering. There isn’t. If I have a toothache and there’s a dentist down the road whom I can afford, why on earth would I not go? Why would I spend my days in pain that makes me grumpy and useless to other people?
In the book, Christina turns sour. More than once the weight of her life makes her lash out at friends and loved ones, making their lives harder in turn. It reminded me of the ways I get into moods of self-pity sometimes. I bet most of us do. As I get older, I realise more and more that my wellbeing doesn’t just benefit me, but the people around me. We have the ability to both pull people down with us and lift them up, depending on the direction we go. So I try to take better care of myself; not selfishly, but so I can make this life and my role in it count.