The Life and Times of Florence Knitingale

Thursday, November 16, 2006


If you go into a kindergarten classroom—any kindergarten classroom—and ask the children who among them is an artist, every single hand in the room will usually go up. And every little artist will be delighted to show you exactly what they mean. If you go into a sixth grade classroom and pose the same question—even if it’s the same kids 6 years later—you will be lucky to see even one hand. And even that one may be reluctant to share their work. If the one hand belongs to a female, there’s a better than even chance that she’ll tell you that her art is not much. I wish I was making this up, but I’ve read the studies. We start out understanding our own value, understanding the precious uniqueness of who we are, and then we allow it to be squashed out of us.

I know what you’re thinking—not everyone has the artistic ability to make money or become famous as an artist. But kindergartners don’t know from money or fame. They know that they can take a pencil and a piece of paper and make something that is pleasing to them. Later, they decide that what they create only has value if someone else says it does. I think this is a heartbreaking thing—this transition from self-acceptance to self-doubt. I mourn all the wonder that is lost, buried in the minds and souls of all those people who no longer believe it to be worthy.

See, I was thinking about all this today. I was thinking about it because I am a person who has always been plagued with self-doubt. Indeed, I’ve fought it so long and so hard that I know my opponent well and it has had to learn to disguise itself in order to avoid being summarily booted out of my head. (It would be a lie to say that I don’t weary occasionally of this endless battle for self, but that’s a post for a different day.) If that dreadful little voice was saying something direct like “You’ll never make it into nursing school. You’re not good enough” why, I’d have no problem sending it packing. So it becomes insidious. It tells me I’m tired of school, don’t want to have to compete when I’m trying so hard to learn, maybe don’t even want to be a nurse, whatever. But the truth is that it’s the same old stuff once I haul it into the light and look at it. It’s fear. It’s doubt. It’s the first message, only in different words. Frankly, I’m a little tired of translation today. But it did get me thinking.

Jami Lula is a favorite singer of mine and he has a song wherein he says that “…my life is a masterpiece…”. And here’s what I think: if our lives are masterpieces—and I believe that they are—then they are surely OUR masterpieces, meaning that we are the artists. Artists who once knew that we created art. Artists who plunged ahead with finger paint or crayons or whatever was to hand without a single thought of what the result might look like to anyone as long as we enjoyed the creating. We squashed the paint between our fingers, and we didn’t hesitate to toss a page and start over if we didn’t like it. But hang out with a bunch of young kids sometime. When they don’t like what they made, most of them don’t give it a second thought. They just start over. They not only don’t think that they’re somehow “bad” for messing it up, they don’t even really formulate the notion that they messed it up. It didn’t turn out. They’ll do it again and they won’t waste a second worrying that the next one might not turn out, either.

I want that back, I really do. I want to make choices for my life and work on goals and dreams without fear or self-judgment—just start painting and love the process. I’m not four anymore, so I can also throw in there that I want it to grow me as a person while I’m at it. But I don’t want to paralyze myself anymore with that nagging little voice that keeps telling me to put my hand down because I’m not really an artist. I’m an artist, damnit. I’m the artist of this particular masterpiece and it’s the most important thing I’ll ever create. I don’t want to keep worrying that other people won’t think I’m painting it right. In the end, if it pleases me, it’s right.

I may or may not make it into nursing school, but it will please me if I work hard at it, learn some things, grow myself. That’s art. I may or may not ever be a registered nurse, but it will please me to return to being a medical assistant if I use that career to touch the lives of my patients and give that care that I and Catherine of Sienna were talking about in an earlier post. The process of painting is so much more than the finished product. Ask any 4-year-old.

You know what else? I want to be this tree:

We’ve had so much wind and rain lately that all the trees in the front yard are denuded but this one hangs on. It’s absurdly yellow in the midst of the stately cedars and pines. It’s scraggly. It doesn’t really seem to know its place. But it’s taking up space and taking up sky and taking up sun with bright abandon. That tree doesn’t have to be right. It just has to grow.

I don’t think I want to know my place, either.


  • At 10:15 AM, Anonymous angie cox said…

    Well Florence maybe some of that innocence comes back.I got a lot of criticism from Holly for a couple of years about my knitting.She likes very smart and I had started experimenting , enjoying the colours ,the textures..really getting my fingers messy .I make shawls like no-one else cos I use the yarns I want.I admit Jane Thornley gave me courage .Her designs are wonderful and better still even though she is a designer she took the trouble to write to me with so much encouragement.She doesn't want back she keeps encouraging and she too has freed herself to make what she likes whatever other's think . It's wonderful watching kids paint but the scary thing is that I was a volunteer at a local Junior school when Holly was at school and so many kids had never painted or used plasticene.One little girl came to our house and she cried then had hysterics because she got felt-pen on her fingers. Her mother kept her pristine and her house was all pink and white .I had to phone her mother because the thought of being "dirty" so terrified her.

  • At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Marianne said…

    I have always said...Art is walking down the road.....and sweetness, the wonder is still there, in you, it is, yeah, right there, see? yeah, you see it, now love it, wallow around in it, feels good, and so right, just being (yep, that again) and seriously, you are a masterpiece, in the making, and perfectly perfect at any given moment...and when you hear that little voice of nasty self-doubt? bitchslap the sucker, tell it where to get off and what to be doing while it's on it's way...
    remember? I'm holding your hand.

  • At 3:56 AM, Blogger Lynn said…

    Oh, how lovely. How absolutely, delightfully, lovely. I remember feeling like this ten or so years ago, when I was contemplating the advisability of kicking the children's charming, feckless father to the curb.

    I am quite happy to accept compliments on the work of my hands, and I value it, and yet there is this reluctance to call myself an artist, even though I do amazing things with color and fiber. God bless my friend with whom I go to Gallery Night in Fort Worth, who introduces me to the other artists as "This is my friend Lynn. She's very talented, and fiber is her media."

    One of the universities in Denton, TX has a nationally-renowned fiber program that you have to jury into.

    *That* is what I would like to do when I grow up. Thank you for reminding me.

  • At 5:44 AM, Anonymous Marianne said…

    Well, I *have* always said...Art is walking down the road...but seriously, when folks have called me an 'artist' in the past I will always tell them, no, not in the sense they mean it, what I *do* tell them though, is that I am an Artisan, and proud of it.

  • At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I have been a lurker but today's writing has moved me to comment. I got to your blog via Celtic Memory and have enjoyed your humor, and humanity, I am reading back through your past blogs.
    I am an RN since 1974. I wish we had more like you, you will be a wonderful and valuable nurse. I am saddened by how difficult the "system" is making it for you. Believe me, it is no less difficult once you make it. You have not chosen an easy path, the work is hard in many ways. But there are rewards unlike most other professions.
    I will be rooting for you and hope you stick with it. If you don't, it will surely be our loss.
    Jude in So. Ca.

  • At 12:47 PM, Blogger Jo said…

    Oh I know that self-doubt! I still think someone is going to find me out one day, and tell the world I'm a fake! (At what, it doesn't matter, it depends on what I'm worried about at the time.) I'm only slowly beginning to realise that THERE ARE NO RULES TO START WITH. WE MAKE THE RULES!
    And you're that tree. You always were!
    Celtic Memory Yarns


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