Good art inspires; it makes you see things differently. I just saw a Frida Kahlo exhibition, and was struck not only by her art, which was inspiring in itself, but by her life story too.
Frida Kahlo was bedridden with polio for nine months when she was six, and limped ever after. As if that was not enough, she barely survived a serious traffic accident in 1925, when she was only eighteen. She had thirty-five operations before she could leave the hospital. She was in pain from that day on.
Kahlo married her husband, Diego Rivera in 1929. A man twice her age, and three times her size, who was a renowned artist in his own right. She had several heart-breaking miscarriages. Finally she resigned herself to a life without the children she had hoped for.
Rivera supported Kahlo’s artistic endeavours, but beyond that he was a lousy husband. The marriage drama included an affair between Rivera and Frida’s sister, followed by infidelity on both sides, a divorce in 1939, and a remarriage in 1941.
In the early 50’s Kahlo’s health deteriorated further, and her leg had to be amputated. This in turn sent her into depression. She died at the age of 47. Some say she took her own life.
Why am telling you this, much abbreviated, version of Frida Kahlo’s life? Her life story, like her art, was extraordinary. It made me indulge in a rare bout of retrospection.
It dawned on me how extraordinary my own life has been, even though it would be termed ordinary by many. Especially compared to Kahlo. Yet it’s all a matter of perspective.
Compared to Kahlo’s life, my ordinary life felt like a blessing: To be able to wake up without pain to a cup of coffee and a kiss from my partner in life. To plan a day of leisure for just the two of us, or a busy day in the amusement parks with my grandchild and her friends. To comment on a business proposal, or blog, or just read a good book, or see an inspiring exhibition. To enjoy the beautiful weather along the seaside, or on the nature trails. To make big decisions, such as whether we will eat out or in. To keep in touch with family and friends, and share with them the good – and sometimes not so good – times in life. To enjoy retirement, after the hustle and bustle of an active working life.
An ordinary life. And yet it would have seemed extraordinary to Frida Kahlo, not to mention to someone living in a war zone, or setting out to create a new and better life as a refugee.
While Frida made me look back, Gustav Mahler made me look forward. I had the privilege of enjoying a memorable rendition of his Resurrection Symphony a few days after seeing the Kahlo exhibition.
Mahler himself wrote quite eloquently about the emotional drivers behind the Resurrection Symphony’s different movements. The symphony starts by questioning whether life and death has meaning, and if so, what it is. Listening to the symphony, I felt like I was walking through this internal discussion hand in hand with Mahler. Partially thanks to the excellent performers, but mainly because of the music itself.
It also brought home the fact that as far as death is concerned, I am in denial. Mahler made me look forward, to ponder death in a way that was not too uncomfortable. But to be honest, I quickly shied away from the subject once the concert was over. At this stage of my life, I prefer to focus on the present.
Instead of pondering death, my thoughts turned to retirement. Frida Kahlo never made it to retirement. The way her life was going, it may have been a blessing in disguise.
There is no right way of retiring. Retirement is more the sum of how you lived your life; of what you carry with you into this – let’s call a spade a spade – final phase of your life.
Your road towards happy, or not so happy, retirement starts before birth. Good genes are crucial, if you are to sustain relatively good health, and manage some success at school and in any careers you may want to pursue.
So let’s assume that the basics are in place. No creditors are knocking on the door, and your health is adequate. Your schooling is not holding you back, neither are wars, or other catastrophes. You may even have the support of people near and dear to you. It’s all up to you, the choices you make.
Remember Frida. Her life was defined by polio and a serious accident at an early stage. You are the lucky one.
Don’t forget that you can strive to be extraordinary in many ways, even by living what you might deem an ordinary life.
An ordinary life does not mean that you have to settle, avoid mistakes, and take no chances. Thomas Alva Edison, a man who said and did many smart things, has been credited with the saying, “Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I’ll show you a failure.”
There is always something in life that we can strive to make better, it’s part of the fun. But we don’t all need to be Kahlos or Edisons.
Then again you may wish to accomplish something that outlives you, that makes a mark on the world, that ensures you fame and fortune. In that case the blessings of being ordinary would not be for you. Go for it, it’s your life.
Frida Kahlo seemed very much alone in her painful world. It brought home the blessings of having family and friends. Ordinary ones, not like Rivera, Frida’s sister, or Trotsky with whom Kahlo was rumoured to have had an affair.
School and work comes and goes, family and friends stay with you into retirement, if you are lucky enough. If you haven’t bothered with them during your “busy” years, you may not be so lucky.
Just make sure you are chasing the right dreams, at least most of the time. Be they ordinary or extraordinary. Retirement will not be fun, if your time is spent regretting the did and didn’ts.
I bought a Kahlo calendar by Angi Sullins to remind me of the blessings of my ordinary life. My featured image is cropped from the calendar’s title page. It seemed appropriate, as these words are inspired by Frida Kahlo.
I am not always thoroughly satisfied with my life. Hence the need of a reminder. Then again, it’s good not to become too satisfied. That would make me a failure in Edison’s eyes.