“Those hollyhocks make me think of my grandmother, and not in a good way,” commented my friend Liz as we gawked our way through a local art gallery. Since I never expected to hear Lizzie say anything negative about her grandmother or hollyhocks, I took a closer look at the painting in front of us. I wanted to like the picture, too. Big sprays of hollyhocks, part Flemish still-life, part nineteenth century sentimentalism, composed with modern simplicity. But something was definitely wrong. After a few moments, I said, “Liz, I think its the frame.” Surrounded by antiqued black molding, this poor pictured looked more entombed than framed. These hollyhocks are dead by now, said the smooth, unadorned wood, and they deserved it. We both shuddered. A gold frame, we agreed, was the necessary antidote.
We were oggling jewelry in a different room, when Lizzie gasped, “Brenna, look at the flowers in the gold frame!” Hanging above the jewelry case, another painting by the same artist had been given the royal treatment. Swirls and ridges seemed to extend the voice of the painting outward in a final, expressive flourish. “Oh, I’m so glad,” I said with relief. “That other frame made me sad.” It surprised me to hear myself say it (and possibly surprised the gallery owner who was sitting 10 feet away), but it was true. That other frame had made me very sad, indeed.
The thought has stuck with me. Re-framing problems in our mental viewfinder is the foundation of all self-help. Grief’s inscrutable dimensions defy such cozy containment. Its scale is overwhelming: life, lived and unlived, both yours and another’s, encompassed in its entirety. Normal frames are not only inadequate, they are downright insane. No silver linings; no live and learn; no better luck next time.
As I struggle to find some equilibrium with this ravenous new, psychic entity, my regular life goes on, buffeted by pressures that I can scarcely define, let alone rehabilitate with snazzier molding; yet today this very solution demonstrated its power in unambiguous terms. Like words resonating in a dream, my mouth spelled out something my heart wanted to say but I was too dumb to hear. That frame made me sad. No kidding. It pays to listen to yourself sometimes. You might just learn something.