Other People Are The Best Things About Us

Got to go to a funeral in a bit. Always a strange feeling when you wake up knowing that you are going to say goodbye to someone that day, isn’t it. 

I met my friend Katie for lunch the other day. Her wonderful mum had just passed away and I needed to hold her and know she was doing ok. She seemed absolutely fine. I had almost forgotten how brilliant people are at holding it together when their insides are in tumult. The nearest she came to going was when we took her daughter to the bathroom, and stood hugging and listening to a funeral song while little Connie went for a wee. 

Katie and I were kids together, at school and youth theatre, running around playing games and being in plays about evacuees and Narnia, and now life wasn’t a play anymore, it was real. We had lost people, we had had kids and careers and bad things happen. Katie was there for me when my Dad died. Years later I introduced her to my lovely friend Mike and they got together. They named their first baby girl after me. Sadie. The only other Sadie I’ve known. Is there any sweeter reminder that you have been sweetly usurped by the young; to have your name taken and passed on to a little person, unformed by life.

The day we met for lunch I had had little sleep. I had got in the night before exhausted from a fierce day of rehearsals and admin, and collapsed on the bed. But I could not sleep. My friend Susie had gone into labour hours earlier, had spent a frustrating day after her waters had broken just waiting for something to happen. The whole day while rehearsing I was thinking of her, and I knew that as I went to sleep, she was likely to be trekking through the unknown lands of labour. I drifted off eventually, feeling guilty that I would be sleeping while she gave birth, but excited that I would wake up and her baby girl would be here. Always strange when you go to sleep knowing you’ll wake up to someone new existing in your life, isn’t it. Baby Ella.

A couple of weeks ago another friend of mine Sarah sat at the table, beaming. I had just given her my Heather Shimmer lipstick, a find in an old make-up bag. It still smelled exactly as I remembered it, and taking off the lid was like I had unstoppered the essence of the 90s. It was classrooms and the back of the bus and kissing boys. Sarah had a different memory of it. Her mum wore it for years, and it was on her mummy’s lips when she kissed her goodbye for the last time in 2001. As we sat drinking and talking, at a meal for my mum’s 60th, I gave Sarah the lipstick so she could see it, put some on. Feel close to her mum. But it was the smell that really took her back. Smell is funny like that isn’t it. I made her keep it. I wanted her to always be able to smell it if she needed to.

I resisted crying for Sarah’s grief, though it reminded me of my own. I managed to just about keep it in when Katie told me her mum had died, though I remembered what that chasm feels like. I didn’t cry when I woke to find that Susie had had a tricky night birthing baby Ella. I didn’t even cry when I held Katie in the pub bathroom while we listened to Chris de Bergh as her daughter chattered on the toilet. But I cried when I got in. Big pelting tears for all of them. For all of us, for everyone. For my mum who never really knew her mum. For a dear friend who lost his mum years ago and misses her terribly and is now scared and helpless watching his Dad growing weaker. My chest felt like it was cracking open for everything all at once. And then I stopped. My face dried. I got on with my day. Sometimes you have to let it out, all the life and love and death, don’t you. 
We cannot really regret tears cried for other people’s pain. Other people are the best things about us.

  

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Holding Hands with Michelangelo

I’ve always wished I could draw. As a kid I’d watch my Dad’s girlfriend sitting at her big slanted artist’s table, drawing grids and sketching out her work. I loved her hands. I loved how she sharpened her thick pencils with knives, the sweet-smelling curls of the coloured wood, the bruised white of the giant pebble erasers. It was like a sorcerer’s magic kit. But instead of the instant alakazam of magic, her art was slow. It built up in lines and layers, you could see the subject appearing gradually, and my excitement would grow as I began to see the picture coming to life. Art has to be waited for. You have to be patient for it. I like that. 

An artist friend of mine asked to draw me recently. I thought he was mental, but said yes. I felt strange knowing he was picking a picture of me to work from, though I would have felt stranger being in the same room as he did it, and I felt even stranger when I learned the picture would be hanging at an exhibition in New York. I felt naked. An uninteresting subject, undeserving of such attention. He is a wonderful artist, can somehow capture a more condensed essence of someone’s spirit in his graphite lines than a photo would, but once done I couldn’t quite let myself look at the portrait he did of me for more than a few moments at a time. I felt shy that I had been drawn, and I felt shy that he had spent time capturing my face. Perhaps I was shy that the hours he had spent on it were hours spent looking into my soul without my being there. Like I’d left him in my bedroom rooting around while I went out.

That’s what art does I suppose. Communicates something of the soul that we can’t express in other ways. 

I met up with my friend for a drink this weekend and we talked a bit of art. I wanted to know how long the pictures took, if he felt differently when he drew people he knew and loved rather than strangers. We talked about art that moved us. I told him that when I had seen Michelangelo’s Pieta in Florence a few years ago, the Deposition, I had been so overwhelmed by being able to get so close to it that I was overcome by gallery mischief. It was a small dark room. The newly dead Jesus was being held by Nicodemus and the two Marys, mother and friend. Entombed in marble shaped by fingers and tools hundreds of years ago, and still here, still being seen, still moving us. One man’s endeavours with earthly materials to create art. There’s something about Jesus that will always strike us. He embodies a part of all of us, lying there. Our wretchedness in life. The child sacrificed to the nature of Man; innocence eaten by a hard cruel world. We see a part of ourselves in him. Perhaps that’s what art is. Making a singular spotlit beauty, a tangible truth of the things that make us all the same.

The mischief rose up. I needed to touch what Michelangelo had touched. I had to. It was too close to me not to. I waited until the security guard was looking the other way and then I lay my palm on Jesus’s shoulder, let my fingers fall gently down his sinewy arm. Felt pity and stillness and the weight of channelled time. When the security guard twitched his head towards me I let my hand drop and left. Once outside my hand felt warm. Glowing. I licked my palm because I didn’t want to lose the traces of it. I wanted to ingest it. I didn’t want it to be lost when I washed my hands. Me and Michelangelo, holding hands across the years.

There is something sanctified about art, about its placing in reverential light-controlled quiet. It can make a ponderer of the most irreligious. And though I have no particular love for religious art due to my non belief, there is something about the doomed man, the peaceful messiah, that you can’t help but find beautiful. I think you can still love Jesus even if you don’t believe in him. Just like you can love Atticus Finch or Albus Dumbledore even though they never existed as real men. And you can love the artists too for bringing them to life. For stilling you long enough to stand and stare, to think and to feel. 

Art makes us feel. It stands before us, quietly commanding our hearts to work.

My friend told me that the portrait he’d done of me had been sold in New York. That a stranger now owned it. Whatever part of me he caught is now theirs. I’m out there somewhere, no more or less worthy a subject that anyone else who has cells or breathes. I have no control over what that stranger might see, and no way of knowing how long I will hang there, which hands I will be passed to, or when that portrait might stop existing. It’s scary, but sort of freeing.