A Picture's Worth a Thousand Hurts

Written in response to: Start your story with a character looking through an old family photo album.... view prompt



I can't look at this album any more right now. My hands are shaking. Something is not right. I'm scared and don't know what's wrong with me. Maybe I'm losing my...

Everybody must think this way at some time or other, this sense you get of being out of step with family, friends, strangers, the whole world. Most people get over it, probably.

Once I had the bright idea to try and figure out what was wrong with me. There's this this square-peg-in-a-round-hole syndrome I'm suffering from, but when I turned to somebody for help, I knew no doctor was going to help. All the doctors were going to do was prescribe medication for depression and/or anxiety, or maybe order some sort of scan of some part of my body. None of that was going to work for me. Don't ask me how I knew. 

How I know.

So I am not completely crazy, but I'm aware that I'm out of step and knowing that can make me more than a little uncomfortable on many occasions. However, if you were to look at me there would be nothing to give away my condition. You might say I'm too normal to be real. Nothing stands out about me, neither horizontally nor vertically, although I'm almost short without actually being classifiable as 'short', however many centimeters that might be. Along with my width and height, if you were to check out my physical features, you'd notice that my hands are average size and that my feet, while not too big, are certainly not too small. 

So far so good. Nobody would ever guess I'm a square person, er peg, in a round town in Maine. I am, however.

Let's consider my face and hair now. Everything about me is far too average to explain any problems, because my nose isn't too big, my eyes aren't too small, and I still have all my teeth. (Well, as far as you know, and what you don't know won't hurt you.) I get decent haircuts when they become necessary and my clothes are simple, usually bought with a budget and during sales. Actually, I don't buy many clothes now, because my closet is full and I never wear anything out. 

I try to be frugal. It feels like I'm doing something for the planet by not gorging on gadgets from Asian countries. 

The point I'm trying to make is that if you were to pass me in the street and I wanted to be invisible, I could do it. Average is probably the middle name my parents wanted to give me but didn't dare. I would have been all right with that if they had. On top of the average quality, I wear nothing to attract attention, because I shy away from it. (Don't forget that word, shy, because I'll come back to it.) Mostly solid colors, ones that don't show much dirt, and fabrics that can go in the wash, never needing to be ironed 


Why does it feel like I don't fit, don't match?

Maybe it's because I don't want anybody to look for me to be dressed like Kim K. and Lady G. or any of the other clowns and clownettes that go to events with an ugly red carpet. Not only do I hate crowds and flat conversation, I hate seeing how men and women dress up as if it were a meat market. So undignified. So unnecessary. Not my world. Too much money spent on showing off, poor little rich kids.

Also not my world are the fetishes the wealthy have, like yachts and personal moon rockets, or paying employees the bare minimum so they can buy something. (Note to Jeffy and Billy: You don't need it. Put it back. Let somebody else have it. Play fairly, boys.) We are not better people because half the world is looking at us.

Before I get too distracted by my own monologue, it might be helpful to point out that I have some basis for what I'm saying. I watched a Youtube video, or maybe two videos, and found out a couple of things. One was that apparantly I possess at least 13 of the 15 possible traits of being on the spectrum. Maybe 14 or 15, except I don't have enough information to gauge two of the categories. 

BEFORE I GO ANY FURTHER: This is not a joking comment on a human condition. This is not anything except an honest statement after watching a video: I fit the description, the 15 characteristics, like I have never felt I fit in the general population. I felt encouraged by the video of the 15. I might finally belong somewhere.

The other video untangled the terminology of the DMS or some other organization, and it overlaps with the first. At that point I just nodded my head. Yep, yep, that's me all right. So it appears that all I need to do is to ditch the round hole and find a square one to be in. Shouldn't be all that hard. That's why therapists are a dime a dozen.

Except obviously I'm kidding myself, wanting to explain (I almost wrote blame) who I am based on something neurological, a characteristic that I was born with. While I do, in fact, see much of me in the explanations given by people not in science or medicine as to what life on the spectrum is like, and it would be far less painful to have a good explanation, I don't buy it. You probably thought I was going to go along with what I saw in the videos, but I think I'm a lost cause.

By this I mean (and I do hope you're still reading, because this isn't a pity piece or a self-help rant) that I think there's something else wrong with me that doesn't have a genetic basis and I can't find anybody to talk to about it. Please do not send me to somebody who's going to work things out according to my relationship with my mother and father, either. My parents aren't the culprits in this case, for the most part. What happened, what upset my applecart, was way bigger than them. That was the problem. There was nobody, no individual, who could actually be blamed.

So it's my problem now, because the dear hearts have left this world. They were pretty much unaware of what was going on around us, what was breathing down our necks, although I suspect Dad was a bit more alert than Mom. That's not because he was smarter, but because my mother stifled a lot of what she knew in her heart to be the truth.

What IS wrong with me, you're probably asking, and rightfully so. I don't fit in, I say, and I say it after putting down one of the family albums I inherited. Nothing makes sense because it's all in pieces. These are albums nobody needs or wants any more, because real photos are out of style. I can't let go of them. The familiar strangers still give me hope that I can make things better.

When I tell you, and don't worry because it won't take many words, you will laugh. Just like doctors would laugh if I went to them. Like therapists would laugh and keep telling me to come back and talk about how well I got along with my mother. Or my father. I got along perfectly. We were a great family. The thing was we didn't live in a bubble. Families have to live somewhere, work somewhere, drive places. They have to buy things like clothes and cars and food.

Some families have trouble doing those things, but it's not necessarily their fault. They survive on a lower rung of the social ladder and making ends meet is their hobby. Their children may or may not know all the details of what is going on, but they can often sense them. This explains my situation, and I apologize if it's not all that interesting or you don't believe me.

The problem I have is this: I'm not only the wrong shape for where I live; I'm also rough around the edges. Knowing that affects everything I do, say, and think. Imagine if you felt that way, like your body had thorns or burrs all over it. Maybe like a cactus. You'd be convinced your fingers would snag on any delicate surface they touched and would ruin it. You'd feel you deserved to be scolded for ruining things that were nice. Or maybe your rough edges might lead you to scratch panes of glass, good china, windshields, things that look really bad when that happens. 

Your personal scratchiness might annoy people who have to listen to that skritch-skritch of your palms when you rest them on a table. They'd confuse you with the claws of a cat who jumps up to higher levels. You would be seriously uncomfortable and unhappy. You would likely get depressed and seek help.

Perhaps I am too far gone to hope for a cure. I cringe when people move too close. I avoid social settings. Not that I have a lot to talk about, because I've kind of thrown myself into my art and it's about all I can discuss now. I can be obsessive at times, or so they've implied. Oh, painting again? Acrylics or oils? What kind of paper? They know my comfort zone better than I do.

Enough talking to myself. I think I can continue looking at the family album a bit more. It might distract me. After all, it's my family. I belong in it and know I'm in quite a few of the pictures that were taken over the years. Photographs sure were lousy in the past, but they still are a really good way to document lives. 

What I don't see among the photographs, though, is how I ultimately decided to become an artist. I knew people who were called painters or sculptors or things like that were often 'picturesque' or 'odd' individuals who didn't run with the crowd. What I didn't know was whether they, like I, longed to feel a part of their community but never quite managed it. 

The point I'm trying to make is that how I arrived at art, as noted, is nowhere in this album. There is nothing identifiable as an influence or encouragement. In the photos I'm in, there's never any art paraphernalia, not even a visit to a museum or a poster by Van Gogh on a wall where I lived.

So rough around the edges am I that even if I wash my hands after working in my studio, it really doesn't matter much to me if there are remnants of paint or medium, or glue, on my fingers. Mostly I don't even notice, to be honest. (Maybe that's comparable to how a person on the spectrum might not notice the other person in the conversation and so just keeps talking, non-stop.) Like everybody else, I wash my hair, but don't mind going out with it streaming wet, making me look like Medusa or worse. It's just my hair, I think. A waste of time trying to do something with it. 

I dress down as a rule, so style rarely factors into my apparel. No holes in my jeans, though. However, there are likely to be splotches of paint on some of my things, even on shoes and purse, but I don't care about those either, just as I don't mind a few spots on the sink after washing out brushes. I don't like wearing jackets that are missing buttons, but sometimes it happens and I don't notice for a few days or weeks. Just not on my radar screen.

Normal people aren't like me, it seems. However, I personally LIKE to see other people with painted knuckles, dripping hair, a t-shirt on backwards, a turn pocket. It's a bit like seeing other layers or fragments of their lives as they go to the outdoor market, shop in the flea market, run into the pharmacy. I mean, why should it be an embarrassment to have dirt underneath your fingernails from gardening or oil stains somewhere on your body if you've been working as a car mechanic? Those are emblems of where we are when we're not doing the public errands. From the wet hair we can calculate when somebody's shower time is, the oil stains reveals that the person has the skills to fix a vehicle. Things like that. Certainly it is also unimportant if our nails aren't nicely manicured. When we're going about our lives, life intrudes. Do we have to clean up ALL the time if people are going to see us?

I've never had a manicure or a pedicure in my life. Never will, probably. Should I feel guilty about that? Kind of, but only because I feel guilty that I don't care about having nice nails or perfectly, trimmed hair, shoes with a shine or no papers on the back seat of my car. I don't care, and ay, there's the rub, because I WANT to care. 

Speaking of mechanics' hands, my father apparently was a very skilled mechanic. He learned fast, in the war. Learn or die, I guess. He sure had grimy overalls from the station, but it didn't bother him. Grime, work grime, was his life. However, car oil was not the main reason for the gring-covered hands I remember. That's because gas station mechanic was Dad's second job. His day job was in an iron moulding factory, a foundary. I never quite understood what he did, but it involved graphite - what he called black sand. Not that I understand what graphite is, except it certainly is used by artists (like me). I think of it as pencil lead or a shiny gray pencil used for sketching.

The point I'm trying to make about the graphite is not so much the dark gray color on my father's palms, but the fissures, the black slits that not infrequently oozed blood and could barely be soothed with the strongest lanolin cream they made back then. These were hands that slaved to pay for what the family needed, but the pay was never enough. 

My story has reached its limits. To understand it completely, you would have to know about how the war veteran was awarded a life of poverty when it was all over. How his hands hurt and he cried when he wasn't admitted to a group that belonged to another social level. How, when I look through all the family albums, Dad's hands are always palms away from the camera. Those scars and that blood don't fit in a family portrait, at a fishing camp,or on the shoulders of a young daughter. They scraped and cut, like I feel I scrape and cut when I'm around most people.

Please don't take me wrong, but despite the shared characteristics, I don't know if I'm on the spectrum and am awkward around others for neurological reasons. I've looked at the albums again and feel differently about myself now. 

The hidden hands. 

The smiling, kind despair of people trying to make ends meet while trying to hide their shame. Don't let people see you bleed. Let them think that it's paint you have on your hands.

November 20, 2021 00:27

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Eve Retter
01:56 Nov 22, 2021

so good, truly. Didn't read at all like a self-pitying rant, but deeply moving and flowy, and very relatable. The link from album, to family, to the things we know about the world and people, and then a full circle kind of thing was really well done.


Kathleen March
02:10 Nov 22, 2021

Your comment is really appreciated. Sometimes we try to achieve something in a story and it works, but sometimes it doesn't. I tried!


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