The Unlabeled Life

It's almost the end of summer vacation, and we're doing the traditional panicked whirlwind of activities before it's too late:  Sunday was mountain climbing and blueberry picking, and Monday, we made the two-hour trek to my favorite art museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  Only we forgot until the last minute that we have a puppy now, who isn't quite old enough to be left alone; and we couldn't find anyone to watch him.  So, like all parents of nine children with blood that is red, we winged it:  packed up some kibble and a leash along with the ham sandwiches and water bottles, and off we went.

The Gardner Museum is not your standard art gallery, with unobtrusive display walls and optimal lighting.  It's an actual house -- a palazzo -- crammed to the gills with the collected art of the benefactor, Isabella Gardner herself.  She stipulated that everything be left exactly as she had set it up.  It was her art, which she chose and lived with, and she had it just the way she wanted it -- and it is a world class collection.

Because we had our puppy chaperone, we couldn't all wander through the rooms as a family.  Instead, my husband hung out in the goose-infested park across the street while the kids and I took ourselves on a tour.  Then we switched off, and I took the dog along with the boys and baby (who had soaked up enough culture for one day), while my husband took a turn in the museum with the other kids.

Isabella Stewart Gardner had made one more stipulation:  no labels.  No little metal plaques mounted on the paintings' frames, telling who-what-when, and no little notecards on the walls telling why or how.  Just the art itself, loosely organized according to country and era, but much of it -- furniture, paintings, decorations, textiles, and so on -- just resting where its mistress thought it ought to go.  (There are laminated room guides to consult, but you have to seek them out.)

There were no tags to tell us what we were looking at.  So, instead of looking at the tags, we looked at the things.  My four-year-old was apparently under the impression that old Isabella had clambered up and painted everything herself, and took my husband on an enthusiastic tour of her favorite angels, her most thrilling pictures of Mary, and a lot of furniture that we are not supposed to sit on "even though it looks very comfy."  One kid showed him the picture that looked like it had a spotlight on it (hello, Rembrandt!).  Another enjoined him to LOOK UP, THERE'S LITTLE PEOPLE ON THE CEILING!  In other words, they looked, they saw, and they understood what they were seeing.

Now, don't get me wrong.  Information is a very valuable thing, and sometimes we really do need help from an expert to guide us, so that we can appreciate things that would have slipped past our untrained eyes -- so we can understand what we're experiencing.  But there is always a danger that what we will remember is the information, rather than the experience itself.

How often do I fall prey to this impulse to consult the label, rather than just seeing?  Oh, hourly.  My kid says something cute, and I can't get away from her fast enough so I can go turn it into a pithy Facebook status.  Or we get to the top of the mountain and I forget to enjoy the view, because I'm busily taking pictures of it.  Rather than just having the experience, I'm looking for the label -- trying to find a way to sum it up, write the official description.  Describe it, rather than understanding it.

The temptation to report or document everything, rather than just living it, is a 21st-century one; but people have always been vulnerable to the impulse to label, rather than live.

There are labels we attach to ourselves:  Attachment parent.  Homeschooler.  Classicist.  Progressive.  Introvert.  The creative type.  Feminist.  Conservative.  Marian Catholic.  And so on.  These labels are useful descriptors, up to a point, but none of these can describe a person in his entirety, and none should limit what we can expect out of ourselves.

Can you label yourself without hesitation?  Then something may be amiss.  And more importantly, does it cause you great stress and anxiety when you feel or desire something which does not neatly fit into that label?   Then something is definitely wrong.  You may have started to rely on labels as a substitute for actual experience -- or even as a defense against it.

Quick before it's too late, skip the information and just live your life!  For a moment, set the official description aside, and look at your life as an interested, impartial, openminded observer, someone who's just wandered in from the street and doesn't have the time to figure out what school of art this work, this life, is from. 

Summer is running out, and life itself doesn't last forever.  Skip the labels.  Live your life!