In praise of an open mind.

By | October 7, 2008

ExasperatedBefore I tell this story, I must first explain: one of my hobbies is cemetery photography. If you live in a place less steeped in history than I do, or if you’ve never visited a Victorian garden cemetery, this probably sounds a little strange. And, well, it is a little strange. But less strange than you might think, as I maintain that many old cemeteries are naturally photogenic places.

My favorite local haunt (see what I did there?) is Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, MA. I’ve been taking pictures there for many years, and have some favorite spots. This weekend I made the first in my annual series of trips to take pictures of the changing fall foliage. While I was there I had an unusual encounter.

I was spending some quality camera time with the monument I refer to in my head (and in photo captions) as Our Lady of the Strong Shoulders, who marks the Hammer family plot (the patriarch of which is called Thorvald, no kidding). Forest Hills – with its sprawling, hilly grounds, paved pathways, and beautiful landscaping – is a fairly popular spot for walkers in the neighborhood, and often while I’m there taking pictures I’ll see people strolling around. Usually I’ll exchange hellos, or maybe a comment on the weather. On this day, two middle-aged women came by as I was fidgeting with my tripod. When they saw me, one of the women walked over to me, smiling; her friend stayed on the path, waiting.

“May I ask what you’re photographing?” she said.

I explained that I particularly like the Hammer lady, that she may be, in fact, my favorite monument in the place.

“Oh!” said the cheerful walking-woman, who was tall and slender with a pageboy haircut. “We were just discussing our favorite monument!” Pause. Then, confidentially: “Would you like to know what it is?”

“I certainly would.” This woman seemed delightfully wacky and I wanted to hear anything she had to say.

“It’s a bronze bas-relief of a woman standing… I’m sorry, I’m reading your pendants.”

I was wearing the two word pendants I got on Etsy several months ago. I don’t wear them very often anymore, because people always ask what they mean, to the extent that I’ve developed a knee-jerk two-sentence explanation that I can hand out like a brochure.

The wacky/friendly woman read aloud, “One says prolix…”

And I went into my little spiel, “‘Prolix’ means wordy, and I chose it because for most of my life I’ve been somewhat notorious for taking a hundred words to say what others could express in ten,” the wacky woman nodded happily at this, “and ‘undulant’ means wave-like…”

“Which represents your body, your size! I see! That’s wonderful!” Smiling, nodding.

I sort of blinked and nodded. It was a pleasant shock. Usually my explanation of ‘undulant’ gets sort of a blank stare and a pause and then a rapid change of subject. There wasn’t a single false note in this woman’s voice; she made the connection with a unexpected lack of judgement or surprise. In other circumstances, her intuitive leap between “undulant” and my actual undulating body was so direct that to a different person she might have seemed rude. But I loved it, and it was a fantastic little moment of feeling understood.

For me, being an activist means not letting things slide; it means speaking up even when it would be easier to be silent. It means pointing out when people say things that are hurtful or offensive even when I know their intentions are good. It means occasionally being annoying with the politics and having to deal with the consequences of calling folks out who don’t want to be called out and who don’t know how to take it well. It means being unpopular some of the time, and accepting that. Thus, having moments like the one above, in which I don’t have to explain, or make my stand, in which I can just chill the fuck out for a minute and feel like someone gets me, without my having to explain, without that weird tension as whomever I’m trying to communicate with tries to negotiate the idea that maybe, not everyone automatically thinks of fatness as a bad thing. Maybe, some fat people don’t hate their bodies or want to change them. It’s a heavy concept, if you’ve never heard it before.

I only had a moment to let this sink in before the woman went on to describe the monument in question, and her friend joined in to describe its location (in a large Victorian-plus cemetery, even the most remarkable monuments can be difficult to find unless you know exactly where to look). Finally they left me to my picture-taking. As they walked off, I heard the quieter, more reserved of the two say to her gregarious friend jokingly, “You really ought to learn to be more outgoing.”

As a general rule I am a pretty reserved person. I keep to myself and prefer when others do the same. But I am, for once, pleased with someone else’s proclivity to extrovertedness. Because it provided me with such a great little moment of acceptance.

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