Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Getting Personal

How much do you want the world to know about you persoanlly?

Last November, I decided to write a Remembrance Day post on the subject of my father-in-law's early life and military service in the Second World War. At that point in time, I had known father-in-law for over twenty years, but I don't think I really knew him until I sat down to record some of the details of his life. 

My own childhood was comfortable-nothing fancy, but there was always food on the table. As I wrote this short biography, I struggled to imagine what it must have been like to work as a child delivering groceries at 2 cents an order or the extreme poverty that meant his family could not even afford to get him a simple library card. 

I sent hours pouring over every sentence in that blog post wanting to make sure that I represented his life and his contribution to the war effort in a way that would make him proud. 

When I emailed the polished piece of writing for his blessing, I was surprised by his response. 

He was horrified! 

"I don't want people to know all those things about me!", he exclaimed on the phone. What was for me a touching tale of his childhood and early career, was for him too private and personal for all the world to know. 

Of course I had to respect his wishes, and scrap the piece I had worked so hard on!

I think that as an artist and a blog writer, I had become somewhat accustomed to putting myself out there and even baring my soul just a bit. Foolishly, it hadn't accrued to me that not everyone is willing to do that. 

I must confess that there have been times when I myself have begun to wonder if there is even such a thing as privacy in this modern age. 

Buy a simple magazine subscription, and the next thing you know, you have some air duct cleaning company in Toronto hassling you on a daily basis with sales calls. 

It doesn't matter how many times you tell them that you have a boiler not a furnace, and that there are no air ducts to clean...they keep on calling every evening. 

All these thoughts came back to me last weekend when I found myself standing in front of the deeply personal paintings of artist Frida Kahlo.

My days of late have not been my own, so a completely selfish afternoon planned around a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario was something I had been looking forward to for weeks. 

Not even a grey and dismal day could dampen my mood.

Self-Portrait of Diego Rivera from the AGO website

At the moment, the gallery has on a wonderful exhibit of artwork by Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Diego Rivera was the more celebrated of the two artists during their lifetimes. Over the years however, the prominence of Diego's work has receded somewhat in favour of that of his wife Frida. I have a theory as to why that is: Frida Kahlo's her artwork is open and honest that it is impossible not to be touched by it. While Diego's paintings are a magpie of different artistic styles, while Frida's paintings are uniquely her own.

Academically trained, Diego Rivera was certainly the more technically proficient artist.  

Self-portrait by Freda Kahlo from the AGO exhibit

Kahlo was self-taught. She completed fewer than 150 small works- mostly self-portaits and still-lifes before she died at the age of 47. 

The bulk of her paintings are intimate in scale; you could easily tuck them under your arm and walk out of the gallery (although security might take issue if you ever dared to do so).

"I paint my own reality.", Kahlo once famously declared. 

At the age of 18, Frida Kahlo was involved in a tragic accident that left her with several broken ribs, a broken pelvis, multiple fractures to he right leg and foot, and a spine that was broken in three places. 

She spent three months recovering in a full body cast and underwent over 30 operations during her lifetime to repair her injuries and to correct the damage caused by several of the botched early surgeries. 

Drawn from her tumultuous marriage to Diego, her broken body, and her many miscarriages, Kahlo's paintings are often about pain. In this self-portrait above, a lifetime of struggles is expressed in the nails that pierce her skin, a torn body and exposed spine. Tears flow from her eyes and run down her cheeks. 

Kahlo holds nothing back here. She puts her heart and soul onto the canvas.

When it comes to self-expression, most of us are not more hesitant about revealing our inner lives. 

Our most earnest wish from childhood is to fit in and be accepted. We carry into adulthood a deep seated fear of judgement and even recrimination.

Who doesn't want to be seen in anything but the best light?

Add to those concerns is the fact that no man or woman is an island. It is one thing to put yourself out there, it is quite another to drag your family into the spotlight along with you.

When you write for the internet, how personal do you get? Do you dare mention first names of your loved ones?

Let's face it, the internet can be a scary place at times. 

The requests for help that pop up in my email inbox each day are a reminder of that. 

And I would be a very wealthy woman if I could ever claim the vast sums of money I have supposedly been sent or inherited!

When it comes to my blog, there are also disturbing reminders in the daily onslaught of bogus "Anonymous" comments:

"Hey, dude! Assume blog. I really like your article. I am going to visit on a regular basis. Be sure to check out my website: somethingpornographic.com"

I think I may have to enable comment moderation in the new year.

Then... just when you start to question the sanity of ever getting personal on the internet again, you come across a piece of writing that is so honest and heartfelt that it can't help but move you to tears.

The writing was so crystal clear that you feel as if you are standing right there in that kitchen, pealing apples for a pie, and listening to the hushed conversation between a mother and her only son.

The dilemma with which any artist, writer or blogger must wrestle is that sometimes we are at our very best when we are at our most vulnerable.


  1. A very thought-provoking post Jennifer - I personally can't bare my soul in my blog posts - I do like to keep my personal life reasonably private - but I have noticed that those that do get a huge response from their followers - it seems that the more they learn about the blogger the happier they are - I'm with your FIL on this one.

  2. Such a great piece Jennifer. Wonderfully composed and executed.

    I don't know at what point I realized BLOG was about marketing for many people. For me, it was a place to share my garden, and to learn from others. The privacy issue was a great concern, until I was 'outed' in "the book" and mags. My attitude has changed but I still cherish an online privacy of sorts. You pose some serious questions. Your closing sentence, says it all.

    As for Frida and Diego..how wonderful you were able to view the paintings. She has always been one of my favourite artists, having lived a most incredible life.

  3. That's a good theme to think over. I try to keep some privacy, because the world is evil.

    By the way.. My blog has a new name and address now. We've got a Golden Retriever's puppy on Sunday. He's called Mickey. Please visit my blog and see him. He's so cute!


  4. Hermosa entrada y preciosas las imágenes, como siempre! Un abrazo grande.

  5. I absolutely have limits to what I´m telling, but it´s not because I feel ashamed or anything like that - it´s just that when it comes to certain things, they feel ment to ME, or my boys and so on. I can´t put my finger on it, but I always know what I should skip when I write. It´s a gut feeling. :-)

  6. Great post. To answer your questions- I at times write the name of my husband here or there but do not reveal anything about him personally- he is a little bit more like your father-in-law and not into putting everything personal out there. A year back I did a personal post at Thanksgiving on things I was thankful for and there I did put personal items. As of late I have been going through something personal that I have not put out there on my blog for all to read/ see - I think I am not totally comfortable with it all so how can I write about it. Who knows, maybe it would make it better, the course of treatment better in some way. I will admit that I read other blogs by women that are going through what I am and find it comforting and informative and I find them incredibly brave- I am just not there yet..... Who knows, maybe you will see one up there by me at some point and if so, hopefully it will help someone like the others have helped me. Intriguing post and great photos to go along with it I might add.

  7. Very well written and thoughtful post. I suppose part of the answer is what kind of blog are you writing. Mine is focused on gardening with occasional forays into other topics. I do mention my family, but never anything intimate. I also don't talk about my job. Actually, I blog in part to get my mind off my job. So for myself this has not been a difficult issue, at least not yet. If I were writing a novel or a memoir it would be different.

  8. I agree with many of the comments so far. I think the Internet definitely has a dark side to it so I am careful about not mentioning names and specifics in my blogs. It's easy enough because one blog is about my garden and the other features family recipes. I am not an artist nor am I a good writer so I have difficulty expressing deep feelings on paper without sounding hokey. So I just don't do it. Plus as I say, my blog readers don't expect that.
    But do I like reading blogs where people express their feelings, happiness and pain? Yes! So I guess I am a bit of a hypocrite - I won't expose my life to the cyberworld but I love it when others do. Hmmmm.
    I do think that blogs that give away too much information about children or regular habits could invite trouble. But having said that - I am quick to post all kinds of pictures of family on Facebook….as if that's not the Internet…….

  9. Your post reminded me of an event which happened very soon after we moved to the USA (from the UK). A couple had invited us back to lunch after church. Although this was the first time we had met them, within the hour we knew about miscarriages, marital disputes and their sex life! Coming from a considerably more reserved background this was all far more than I wanted to know! vVlnerability is one thing, hanging it all out there is another.

  10. Very thought-provoking post. I am definitely in your father-in-law's camp. Our world is so crazy and although my personal life, happily, borders on the boring, I think you are taking a huge risk when you reveal yourself on the internet (no Facebook for me). Obviously everyone has a different threshold of what constitutes personal and private, and I plead guilty to liking to talk about myself. Part of the reason I like blogging about my garden is that it allows me to express who I am without giving up too many personal details.

  11. I get some of those anonymous comments also but they usually go into spam and I just delete. I think we have to be careful on the internet about specifics, like where we live, work, birthdays, etc. Identitiy theft relies on all of this information.

    Jennifer, I have been very remiss lately writing and replying to blogs. I had forgotten how much time it takes with a new puppy. Happy Holidays!


  12. Very good post, Jennifer. There is little that people can not find out on others if they so desire. Not adding to that info is probably best. I have a problem with an internet stalker and don't mention that much about family on my site. Most don't even know I am married. In fact, I had a follower of my blog that stopped coming when I answered his email and made sure he knew I was married. So I lost a reader, big deal. The stalker I mentioned, knows and does not care. Now he is a problem, one where I had him tossed in jail because it got seriously out of hand, but he still reads my blog. I am always aware of that fact.

    1. Donna, A stalker sounds very frightening! This is a great cautionary tale.

  13. I keep my blog light, a few details of my personal life, but not many. I have the luxury of not needed to consult anyone else about what, how, when and how often I blog so I feel very free.

    I put way too much out there on Facebook! lol

    Have a merry Christmas Jennifer!

    1. um, that is "not needing" not "not needed"!

  14. When I first started blogging I was very careful of trying to keep my personal and professional worlds separate. I did not want my then boss to have any reason to question what I was doing. However, I have blogged a while now and eventually customers and strangers would come up to me saying how much they liked my blog. I think it actually generated business for my boss. The funny thing is that it actually helped me get my new job. So I am glad that over the years I have made a point of re-reading my posts several time before I hit the send button. Sometimes the less said, the better.

  15. I wish I could have seen that exhibit! She is one of my favorite female artists! I struggle with sharing too much on the internet all the time. I don't do Facebook and I try to limit info about my kids. I figure if I stick with plants and design most of the time I should be good! It is definitely a balancing act! I hope that you have a wonderful holiday!

  16. I think I've bushed some readers away talking about becoming a quadriplegic ten years ago but it's a huge part of my like and of course it seeps into my writing.

    I've always been a huge fan of Diego Rivera and his calla lilies painting. But I read in several places he treated Frida Kahlo like Ike treated Tina Turner. Takes some beauty out of his paintings for me.

  17. Interesting and thought provoking. I think it might be a generation thing, young people seem quite happy sharing everything, but us oldies like to be a bit more private, hence so far no photo of me on my blog! I always think twice before I put anything personal in my blog, who knows who could use it, I think we have to be very careful with what we include eg, I wouldn't ever include photos of my grandsons because I know my daughter wouldn't approve. Sad I know, but that is the world we live in today unfortunately.

  18. Jennifer this was a very thought provoking post.
    "Frida" was an amazing movie and I enjoyed it so very much .. in fact no matter how many times I have watched it ? I will always watch it again if it is on TV .. I would like to find the BluRay movie.
    She truly promoted the love of her very colourful,very emotional country.
    As to how much should we reveal about ourselves and how shocking some of our stories would be ? ... another mystery of life that will soon be eroded away with that ever encroaching technology.

  19. " Pan metron ariston " = everything is best in moderation :)
    Loved your post, Jennifer !

  20. A good written piece is never a waste. You've learned more about your father-in-law - and had a good deep think about what you're putting out into the universe. This summer I had a surprise guest drive 90 minutes to my house in the middle of the night. A couple of years ago when I had trouble with an expensive oven and wrote about it - I received a phone call from California saying they would fix it - actually completely rebuilt the mother-board in the oven. Both events were because of the blog. Glad you had a day at the AGO - are you going to Landscape Ontario Congress - will give you contact name if you need ticket information. I haven't checked out the schedule, but will be there at least one of the three days - coffee and juice in the media room if you have a moment to meet up.

  21. I've put my husband's first name on my blog a couple of times, but I don't even like to use my own first name. lol I try not to put too much personal info on the Internet as I just don't feel comfortable doing so.

  22. I LOVE this!! Not only because I also love Frieda Kahlo but because I've also wondered how much is too much. I started out just writing about plants but realized that gardening is so infused into the rest of my life that I couldn't really, honestly separate them. My writing has become more and more personal, but not in a way that I feel is invasive but in a relatable way. At least that's the way I perceive it. I'm thrilled that my piece about my son moved you so much. That's incredibly touching. :o)

  23. Wonderful and thought-provoking post, Jennifer.
    Within reason, I do not mind (or fear) sharing personal things about myself.
    As far as for other members of my family, I try to steer clear of that most of the time.
    Wishing you a wonderful day ahead!

  24. A very thought-provoking post, Jennifer, and so eloquently said. Privacy has always been a concern of mine on the internet, especially when I first started blogging. I don't mind revealing my own personal feelings, but I don't include any personal information about my family, including their names. When I posted last month on Facebook that my husband had come through his surgery just fine, my husband had the same reaction as your father-in-law. I thought his friends and family would like to know, since he doesn't have his own Facebook page, but he didn't want anything about him made public.

    The spammers seem to find us no matter what we do; I've thought about adding comment moderation, too.

  25. Jennifer, I really enjoyed reading this. I am sorry your father in law didn't want his story 'out there'. I think that generation was far more private. I know my mother in law doesn't want anything about her on the internet. Hers too is an interesting story.
    Once I was on Facebook, think the flood gates were open. I try to keep some of my info shielded from 'everyone'. I do try to be careful about posting things about other folks - re. my kids. As a matter of fact on Christmas morning I was told all photos were to be screened before being allowed to go on FB.
    Lovely review of the art exhibit. I know some of Freda Kahlo's work. I did not know her story --- I think everyone has an interesting story.


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