16″ x 20″ 2011

I like to take care of people. I like it so much that I go overboard and get angry because I think people

  • Don’t appreciate it enough
  • Take me for granted
  • Don’t help enough
  • Don’t notice and see that I am angry (because I don’t say anything)
  • Expect me to keep on doing all the work

My Irish Catholic upbringing nourished this hard-working, guilt-trip laying, over-do-it part of my personality I’ll call the Workaholic Martyr. When I started this series knowing I’d be depicting my mind-states, this was my first choice for a painting. I can get caught up in this one very easily.

The idea of a using the crow as my Workaholic Martyr animal came to me one morning when I heard a crazy, loud ruckus outside my window, like a gang of hooligans pounding on the house. I jumped up and ran to the window to see a flock of crows swarming and cackling at each other until all but one flew off. The remaining crow sat on a wire just outside the window, looked straight at me, unflinching, and made weird clucking noises and occasional screeches. “Oh, you’re going in the painting,” I said to her. She was alone after others had given her a hard time, she was mad, and she was bitching about it.

The 50s image of a dutiful housewife most aptly portrays the kind of perfectionist role I wanted to get across. I was a kid in the 60s when it was still the norm to try to live up to this image, so I understandably inherited a piece of the kitchen wife legacy. There is nothing inherently negative about the role if you enjoy it. What’s harmful is trying to be perfect at it (or any role) even if it makes you unhappy. It’s about feeling out-of-balance, un-loved, and then blaming other people for it. It’s about not sticking up for yourself. It’s about having unreal expectations of yourself and others. It’s about trying to live up to an image that everyone else has agreed upon, but isn’t best for you. It’s about not questioning old perceptions and their consequences.

My Workaholic Martyr mode passive aggressively tries to set an example of good behavior with the nutty idea that others will see it and a.) recognize how awesome I am and treat me better, b.) try to follow my excellent example and be better all-around people (by my definition) and c.) feel awful for putting me in this dreadful situation of overwork, and show real pity and remorse. When I ‘m in this mode I don’t seem to notice that a, b, and c never happen.

The reason this mindset is such a trap is that I really do get a lot done. It makes me more successful-looking. I’m given pats on the back and encouragement to keep up the good work, and I seem to get ahead in some way. The benefits of overworking, at least on the surface, is that I look like an example of a model citizen. I’m tidy, on top of things, industrious, and on time. A good time to go into Workaholic Martyr mode is when I’m feeling bad. Then the goody-goody feedback from others can seem to lighten my mood. My finished work gleams with quality so I can verify my goodness. I get high on the drug of proving myself. But the pats-on-the-back also ensnare my susceptible mind and fuel more overwork. Then I start seeing others as lazy, unhelpful, and ungrateful. Odds are they don’t see me as anything but getting a bunch of work done that they don’t have to, and are wondering why I’m so grouchy.

As with all of my paintings, taking a look at this part of myself opened up possibilities for change. I was relieved to become aware of it in all its ramifications (listed in the previous paragraphs.) At least it was no longer hidden and sneaky. I didn’t like it, but I came to accept it. In time, humor crept into the scene—a good sign the attribute was losing power. When I felt bitterness sneaking up on me while I worked, I’d remember the Crow in her yellow dress and make fun of myself. I’d announce to the family that I was getting up in my resentment as if preparing everyone for an impending earthquake. Or I’d do a mock tantrum and announce that we were going out to dinner tonight. My formerly embarrassing trait that I wanted no one to know about turned into one of my slightly annoying features that we all had to live with. I even started finding less interest in overwork and more appeal in sharing the load. Eventually I formed habits that called for the Crow a lot less.

And sometimes I work with joy, and am overwhelmed with gratitude. Rather than grumble about doing the dishes, I marvel at the fact that I have a kitchen, a sink with warm running water, a dishwasher, dishes to eat on, and cupboards to put them away in. Dishwashing represents the enormously fantastic fact that, unlike much of the world, I had enough food to eat that day. There is not a hint of animosity toward the people around me, in fact I feel lucky to have them. I feel the energetic pulse of life that comes with hard work and the sense of loving kindness that preparing food and cleaning up afterwards can bring. The family hearth is the crucible of our society, and sometimes I get a sense of that. With my mind in place of clarity, I can enjoy each moment of the sacred act of providing nourishment to myself and others.

I don’t have the perfect attitude all the time, but my Workaholic Martyr crow lady doesn’t have to be the nuisance she used to be. I don’t know if she will go away for good, but her tendency to ruin a perfectly nice day is lessening. In the words of Bernard M. Baruch, “The art of living lies less in eliminating our troubles than in growing with them.”