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The best version

March 11, 2011

On my way out of the choir rehearsal I accompanied today, I got a cancellation call from the mom of the student I was supposed to be tutoring in math. Instead of spending 90 minutes drilling a fourth-grader in fractions and multiplication, I would have an extra couple hours of daylight to myself. I could go read magazines at the library, look at clothes in Marshall’s that I shouldn’t buy until next week’s paycheck, or… right. Go hiking, like I should’ve done this damp, gloomy morning, if I’d managed to kick myself out of bed sooner. I knew I needed the exercise, and I’ve had some of my best hiking experiences in similarly forbidding weather.

I’ve been feeling sort of down on myself lately, physically speaking, and it’s not really because of the wobble in my upper arms or the 10 pounds I’ve been meaning to lose forever. It’s because of my lack of determination to overcome bad weather, inertia, or whatever, and go exercise anyway. Worse, I’ve been comparing myself unfavorably to other people, some of whom I don’t even really know, who seem to have things going for them that I don’t — motivation, a more active lifestyle, stunning good looks. This is not only useless but irrelevant, because I am not those people. I don’t have their gifts, resources, or goals, I have my own. I know this. But sometimes it’s easier to sit on the couch and wallow than to get up and do something that makes me feel better about myself — me, a uniquely created person, and not a failed imitation of someone else.

Which is why I’ve decided to give up feeling sorry for myself for Lent. Good luck, right? I expect to slip up in small ways on a daily basis, but the idea is to catch myself, figure out what’s really bothering me, and do something to counteract it. I’m sleeping in too late? Move the alarm out of arm’s reach, and actually stay out of bed once I’ve gotten up to silence it. I haven’t accomplished my goals for the day? Stop reading things online and get on it. I’m sluggish and out of shape? Easy. Get out of the house and get moving.

This is how I found myself fighting my way up a rocky hill, pushing farther and faster, wanting to feel the heat in my legs and chest, the effort of breathing. Wanting to know I was doing something hard and a little unpleasant, teaching my body to be stronger and tougher. Until I couldn’t any more, and stood still, heart racing, turned my face to the flat gray sky, and prayed: God, help me to be the person You saw when You designed me, the person You still see in me. Not someone else, just the best version of me. Help me to accept who and what I am and to believe that others will accept me, even love me, too.

I kept climbing then, but more slowly, without the same urgency. I thought about how strange it is for someone like me, who’s always considered herself sort of average-looking, to be so frequently surrounded by actors, people whose job requires them to be attractive. Naturally, I feel prettier some days than others, and more so since I’ve had a couple of boyfriends to say nice things about me. And I’ll never forget my grandfather telling me I had such beautiful eyes. But on the whole: average. Then I thought of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whom one astute blogger has compared to celery root, scruffy-looking but versatile. (Though I think Hoffman is much more interesting.) Most people wouldn’t call him particularly handsome, but he’s widely regarded as a fine actor, and with good reason.

One of my favorite films of his — OK, one of my favorite movies, period — is State and Main.  The story follows a gaggle of Hollywood personnel — actors, director, cinematographer, designers, etc. — who descend on a small Vermont town to shoot a film. Hoffman plays the tortured, idealistic screenwriter torn between pleasing the director, who insists he rewrite a pivotal scene to eliminate a problematic set piece, and remaining true to his script’s noble intentions. He’s befriended by a local bookseller and community theater maven (Rebecca Pidgeon) who shows him what’s really important, which he actually knew all along: truth, and standing up for what you know is right.

I realized today that the friendship and eventual romance that develops between these two characters is probably my favorite aspect of the film. The gentle, perceptive way she’s able to lead him to the right answer, while still giving him room to figure it out for himself, is something I’d like to emulate in my own relationships. I think I’d like someone to do that for me, too, but that’s probably a tangent for another day.

I’d like to add that State and Main is also terribly funny, especially to anyone accustomed to the clash between ambitious, high-energy artist types and small-town New England culture. I think I may have to watch it again soon, at the expense of finally watching Inception so I can mail it in and cancel my seldom-used Netflix subscription once and for all.

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