Friday, July 15, 2011

Stiff Competition

I've lived in Iowa my entire life. Several corners of it, of course, but I've been here for over 37 years. Every year (with the exception of a few), I've gone to the Iowa State Fair. I was raised on it.

For those who aren't in Iowa, it may not seem like our state fair is a big deal. It's just a fair, right? Rogers and Hammerstein didn't seem to think so. Their award-winning musical, "State Fair" was based on our little state fair. And to me, it's never been just a little deal either. There are things to do, people to see, concerts to attend (My first concert with New Kids on the Block was there in 1989), foods to eat, rides to ride, competitions to enter.

Or not.

I don't talk much about my mother (I'm not really sure why, actually), but for those who didn't know her, she was very talented when it cames to crafts. She crocheted, constructed quilts and did counted-cross stitch and embroidery. She painted ceramics and when the mood struck her, she sewed clothes, too. She never saw herself as being especially gifted, but her work really was amazing. I still own and display some of her work in my house today.

I remember as a kid, the family and her friends would encourage her to enter some of her creations in the state fair competitions every year. "JoAnn, your stuff is so pretty! I know you'd win! You should enter." She'd always dismiss them with a flippant, "It's not good enough. They're very picky. I'd have to start doing all of my stuff differently because you have to..." and she'd go off on a well-rehearsed speech about how the back of her work that nobody sees would have to be hidden and always end the speech with, "I don't have that kind of time."

She was right. She didn't.

She was diagnosed with cancer in her late 40's and taken from us just a few short years later. Her blue ribbon was never meant to be.

I didn't realize just how much of my mother I had in me until it came time to hear the same encouragement from my friends and family about entering my photos into the state fair competition. "Mel, you're good. Like really good. DO IT!" I always came back with my mother's same old retort, "It's not good enough." For years, I've let my mother's fears cripple me. I bought into her bullshit.

In my own defense, if you could see the work that gets displayed each year -- the photographs that are chosen to be exhibited....DAMN! There are some phenomenal photographers in this piddly little state of ours. For years, I've enjoyed strolling through the Cultural Arts building at the fairgrounds. I like the doll houses and other fine arts, but I could (and have) spend hours wandering through the photography salon. I am in awe every year at what gets chosen and I wonder how in the hell someone can be that talented and gifted. Of course, there are a few photos that I've seen where I think to myself (never out loud, of course...that would be egotistical), I've shot that same picture and mine's better. What am I waiting for?

This year, I finally stopped waiting. I went through my photographs that I've taken over the last couple years and with the help of friends and family, I selected the four photos I would submit to this year's competition in various categories. The deadline approached and, as I do with everything in my life, I waited til the last minute to get things taken care of. I picked up my newly-matted photographs from the frame shop and went directly to the fairgrounds to have them submitted -- this is how I do things, see?

I thank God I had someone with me because had I been by myself, I'd have allowed myself to become fully enveloped in the panic attack that clawed at my throat that day and I would have left the building without submitting anything. But my husband wouldn't hear of it.

"Your pictures are beautiful," he said over and over.

In the full depths of my anxiety, all I could manage was a nod in response.

The room was filled with boxes upon boxes of photographs that had already been submitted that morning. We're talking thousands of photos. THOUSANDS! I felt so intimidated, I could hardly function. And those were just the ones that had been dropped off that morning. There had been God knows how many more mailed in in the weeks before. It also didn't include the ones that would come after me that afternoon or the next day. I couldn't even think about it. I blindly made my way through the line and was back out of the building in less than thirty minutes. (At which time, I gave into the emminent breakdown.)

I never understood my mom's fear when it came to competition for her crafts until that day. I'd always thought, "What's the big deal? Either you win or you don't. Big whoop!" But it's so much more than that. Her crafts were her life. From the time she got out of bed in the morning until the time she turned out the lights at night, if she was at home, she was crafting. She put her heart and soul into her work and took great pride in what she did. The judges for those competitions are at the tops of their craft, no pun intended. They're editors for craft magazines, past winners, people whose patterns and ideas have been published in books and magazines. Bluntly put, they're the shit! What her fear boiled down to was this: She knew in her head that she was good at what she did and unless she opened herself to judgment from others, she always would be. But the minute she opened herself up to a competition, she risked that self-worth. It was too much for her to handle.

It was too much for me to handle, too. That's why I withheld my photos for so long.

But just like I suspect my mother had nothing to worry about, neither did I.

I found out today that two of my photographs were chosen to be exhibited in the photography salon at this year's Iowa State Fair.

Two. Among thousands.

I won't know for a couple weeks yet if I've placed in the competition, but it doesn't matter. I won something bigger than a blue ribbon - I beat doubt, fear and ghosts from my past into submission.

That's good enough for me.

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