Call it anarchy, call it subversive, there is something exhilarating about defying the belief of who you think you are—challenging the expectation others have assigned to you, as well as your diminished expectations of yourself.
Back in the seventies, I wore towering platforms: white saddle oxfords with pink patent leather replacing the black saddle-shaped bands, and four-inch crepe soles. I was thin, had long hair and could rock a pair of hip-hugging bell-bottoms that, with my platforms, just grazed the floor. Now, inching into my mid-sixties, I've shrunk a little. I was certain something was wrong with the stadiometer when the nurse said I measured five-foot zero... barely. I'd never considered my height much, except maybe when I hung around with a six-foot former Ms. Idaho. Back then I was a solid five-two.
Lately I've been gauging a different kind of stature, one that can't be empirically confirmed. I've begun comparing myself to others, aware of feeling like I'm not measuring up. My shell, which in the past has serviced niggling self-doubt with deflection, has a crack verging on chasm in the land of insecurity—a crater of self-doubt in need of repair. How did this happen?
Recently, I sold the art gallery I owned for over thirty-three years. It's not surprising my identity became tied to it. But like many relationships in my life, I left wiggle room for disappointment. My name wasn't on the sign, so it became this thing that belonged to me, but also to anyone.
Intellectually, I knew it was time to sell given the changing landscape of brick and mortar retail, and some health issues I'd been facing. So, I prepared for the emotional impact, gradually allowing my employees to take on more responsibility. I also created Plan B, a tea company which allowed me to take advantage of my art knowledge for the packaging and production of specialty teas. Having studied with a tea master, I created blends that reflected famous works of art. Starry Night tea, an herbal flecked with yellow chamomile and blue lavender echoed the colors of Van Gogh's painting. I also maintained a website and an Amazon store that would allow me to continue selling art and vintage posters.
Though I was nervous about what it would mean to no longer own the gallery, part of me was eager to pursue my other interest: writing. I'd participated in workshops for over a decade and had a substantial pile of poems that had been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. I put together a collection of my work and it was recently accepted at a university press. I was over the moon.
But the moon has a dark side. I wasn't entirely comfortable with my success. The adage, 'Be careful what you wish for,' suddenly applied to me. I didn't have a staff who would speak to others on my behalf the way I did at the gallery. I was laid bare; this poetry book was all me. And as the publication date drew near, the expectation turned from excitement to what have I done?
Thirty-three years ago, from the moment the gallery opened its doors, it was a hit. The new Healthy Jones restaurant at the end of the row of shops usually had an hour wait for seating. Those patrons wandered over to my gallery to browse and often ended up purchasing prints or art gifts. Word spread. Soon newspapers were interested, articles came out and the buzz began. I was the architect of my dream, bringing to life the picture I rendered in my head.
Wooden bins lined the walls and ran down the center aisle filled with hand-made folders holding thousands of prints, lithographs, and museum posters. Two long fabric-surfaced counters for designing custom framing stood before the back walls covered floor-to-ceiling with a myriad of frame corner samples. Artful Danish-modern étagères displayed original and museum replica sculptures, glass cases showcased artist-designed jewelry, and framed art from around the world covered every bit of wall space. Everything was just as I imagined it.
After all the struggles, the hurdles, the defying the odds to make it happen, you'd think I would have been ecstatic, but I spent the first day weeping and it wasn't happy tears. Why? I couldn't explain it.
Now, with this massive insecurity about the impending release of the book, I realized I needed to examine the way I responded to these situations and called my wise friend Sharron, a talented poet and teacher. The first thing she asked was about the book's release date.
"It's coming out in May." I replied.
"How wonderful! You must be thrilled!"
Of course, part of me was. I knew that to have a university back your work was no small thing, and I felt honored. But those moments of pride were shrinking. "I'm having issues," I said to her. "Waves of mortification."
I told her that even though I've had poems published, read in public and shared them with our peer groups, this was different. "Others will judge me. They might hate it. It might be crap. What if someone had a mental lapse at the press and made a mistake in accepting it?"
"All of the poems?" she replied. "I doubt it."
Sharron didn't dismiss my feelings. She offered kind words about my work but also empathized. "Have you heard of imposter syndrome?" she asked.
"Imposter syndrome? No. It sounds about right, though."
"It's a common phenomenon among women. Basically, it refers to the negative feelings that emerge when you experience success but don't believe you deserve it. You aren't the only one who has these feelings. You might want to look it up."
Her words, common among women, allowed me to tap into crusader mode. This isn't just about me, it's about women. In her book, Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, Imposter Syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young shares this quote by poet, Maya Angelou: "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody, and they're going to find me out.'" If ever there was a really? moment, this was it. To think Maya Angelou felt that way was surprising.
I thought about how I've gone against the grain most of my life. Early on, having divorced parents in the fifties, growing up without a father and raised by a Lebanese grandmother, I always saw myself as a young girl with secrets, an outsider.
Later, it became my preference not to follow the pack. My history, while painful at times, also prepared me to feel comfortable in out-of-the-ordinary scenarios. So, rather than work for a firm or corporation, I created an independent environment, my own business. Looking back, I'm still amazed by the unwavering confidence I had opening my gallery despite a chorus of naysayers who suggested I would fail miserably. I was a woman in my twenties with marginal self-esteem, but with a sense of purpose. Nothing would dissuade me. When I was referred to an experienced gallery owner for a consultation, he treated me like an idiot. "You'll never make it," he said. I wept with disappointment as I drove home, but later found the resilience to buck up. The mission of art for everyone had eclipsed any doubt others would try to instill.
Soon after, I attended a seminar at Detroit Country Day school. Successful business owners were invited to give talks. I sat in on Florentine Van Tiem's session, a socialite who'd become a millionaire by the age of twenty-seven (my age then). She came up with the fly-drive advertising campaign for Hertz Rent-a-Car and later started the Hollywood Bread Company. She was petite and elegant. Her presentation was sincere, part business, part personal. Van Tiem's husband and son had been killed in a car crash and she was acutely aware of the limitations of money when it comes to having a meaningful life. One thing I took with me was her assertion that people want to help you. "All you need to do is ask," she said. I was shy about imposing on others, and asking for help was not something I was comfortable with.
A short time later, when my so-called friends treated me like steerage on the Titanic, I decided I would need a raft. I took a deep breath and dialed up Ms. Van Tiem, hoping to glean some of her confidence. As a woman in the male-dominated advertising industry of the early sixties, she had certainly challenged the norms with critical success. To my great surprise, her secretary put me right through.
"Where do you live?" Van Tiem asked.
"Southfield, but I can come to you." Her office was in Metamora, a good forty miles away.
"Are you familiar with the Original Pancake House in Southfield?
I'll meet you there at noon on Friday, I'll be the one wearing a big hat."
Could it be that easy? She didn't even ask what my intentions were.
Friday came and as I waited in the foyer of the restaurant, I looked around at the gingham curtains and homey country style appointments. The scent of pancakes and bacon wafted with a kind of comforting aromatherapy.
Ms. Van Tiem, true to her word, arrived wearing a lovely cream and pale pink skirted suit, almost hidden by her Kentucky Derby-style large-brimmed hat. The hostess seated us at a small table in the crowded restaurant and without looking at the menu she recommended the German pancake, which I'd never tried. Before the food arrived, she took out her checkbook, asking how much money I needed.
"Oh, no, no. I would never—that isn't why I wanted to see you." I explained my idea for the gallery which would be a sort of library for prints, posters and reproductions categorized by country and period. I also told her that I had a degree in psychology with a minor in humanities, had no retail experience, have never sold anything but knew I could. I'd studied art history in college, and it became an obsession. The idea for the gallery came to me when I wanted to purchase reproductions of my favorite paintings to hang in my apartment. Paintings by Caravaggio and Rivera that were virtually priceless, and therefore would never be for sale. I'd travelled to Italy recently, thumbed through dog-eared prints messily piled on tables and witnessed how popular they were. I also knew they needed a proper showcase to keep them from getting damaged and to highlight each work.
I had purchased several reproductions from Alinari, a famous print shop in Rome and stored them under my bed in anticipation of the gallery. "Recently, I saw a Jim Dine poster in a Georgetown shop with a caption that read 'Mixed Media, Poster Capitol of the World,' and I called Las Vegas to order a catalog," I told Van Tiem. Mixed Media was at the helm of the little known, yet burgeoning, fine art poster market in the seventies. "I've visited every frame shop in the Detroit Metropolitan area asking why they don't sell prints and posters. Most said people aren't interested, or that there's no money in it.
"I know people want this. My problem is that everyone, everyone is trying to talk me out of it. All I hear is No." She listened intently and responded with, "If you showed a diagram of the first wheelbarrow to ten people, nine of them will tell you why it would never work. Only one will see the merit of it. Promise you'll do me a favor. Whenever you hear the word no, I want you to picture me saying yes."
At that point, what appeared to be a humongous popover dusted with powdered sugar arrived. The German pancake, almost as large as her hat, flowered over the rim of the plate as she picked up a wedge of lemon to squeeze over the golden confection.
"You eat it like this," she said, tearing off pieces and rolling them up.
It was light and delicious and seemed a metaphor for how to approach the enterprise I had taken on. Break it down to smaller bites.
Ms. Van Tiem suggested I call the gallery "Shipley's World of Prints," using my surname at the time. But, at the suggestion of my logo designer, I called it The Print Gallery, a name that later on, didn't really represent the myriad of things we offered. Subsequently, she sent me the mailing list for the Friends of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, so that I could invite the patrons to my grand opening. She also told me there was building retail space on the island of St. Lucia and spoke as if she had no doubt I'd succeed. "I'll give you a store there for your second gallery," she added. "You won't have to pay rent." But I was focused on giving all my attention to The Print Gallery.
This kind, generous stranger invited me to call her anytime. But other than sending her a note of gratitude, our little tête-á-tête and her words of encouragement were all I needed. I never saw her again. Once, she sent me a note congratulating me after reading an article in the Detroit Free Press about the gallery's success.
Looking back, the fact that the landlord in the upscale Franklin Plaza leased me the space was itself incredible. Forget that I was under-capitalized, and that I looked like a skinny kid when I knocked on his trailer at the construction site wearing jeans and a plain white T shirt. "I'd like to rent one of your stores for a gallery," I said confidently, while shaking inside.
"What's a little girl like you want to open a business for?" he said in a heavy Russian accent. He seemed gruff, at first, but I ignored that and explained what I wanted to do.
"I don't know what you're talking about. Sit down," he said, inviting me into his trailer/ office. "I'm going to call one of my tenants. If he likes your idea, you have the space." Within minutes, the owner of a shop in the mall, a man who appeared to be in his late thirties, showed up. I explained my idea right down to the interior I'd imagined. He looked at the landlord and said, "I like it." The landlord looked at me and said, "It's yours." Later I was to discover, he had a waiting list of several established retailers that wanted the space.
The gallery grew over the years, expanding from a thousand to five thousand square feet. It survived the recession of the eighties. Our sales during good economic times were very impressive. And I provided work for dozens of employees. The Print Gallery was also honored as one of the Top One Hundred Galleries in the country several times by Décor, a trade magazine. And since there was no one else doing exactly what I was doing, there was no comparing, no better or worse. But in retrospect, I never really took in the success and the accolades. It was the gallery that succeeded, not me.
Over time, my formula for how to make my place in the world evolved into what I called the Seabiscuit Method. Keep your head down, ignore the No's, and continue moving forward. Seabiscuit was a small, clumsy stallion with short, crooked legs who surprised everyone when he beat the 1937 Triple-Crown winner, War Admiral, by four lengths in a two-horse special at Pimlico to become a champion. It's his underdog theme I and most others connect with, the determination that supersedes our perceived shortcomings. When Laura Hillenbrand's book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend came out, that horse became my hero. A plastic sculpture of this improbable thoroughbred sits on my bookshelf, an iconic symbol of the word yes.
This yes-ness was something I spent years cultivating. As a child, I was unable to participate in group activities due to the limited budget of our household. I was crushed when I tried to slip in under the radar and be a Camp Fire Girl like the two other Dianes in my third-grade class. I kept telling the leader that my mother was going to buy the uniform, which never happened. After weeks of being a part of that group, the leader shut the door in my face telling me not to come back, as I stood on her porch, weeping. My mother, a single working mom who received no child support forbade me to take ballet, so I babysat and saved the money for lessons, walking several blocks to the studio at Grand River and Lahser at the age of eleven, without her knowledge. I always arrived an hour early because there was a gymnastics class prior which I couldn't afford, but I watched and then went home and practiced what I'd seen.
The ballet teacher chose me for the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker ballet, but my plies and arabesques came to a halt when I couldn't pop for the costume. When the teacher called my mother to inquire, and my cover was blown, the curtain fell, ending my ballet lessons.
Both times it was a uniform that was my demise. The word uniform is an implication of looking and acting like the rest. Those rejections motivated me to look for other ways of being. I hung out with girls who were rebels. They ratted their hair, smoked, and wore thick black eyeliner with bright pink lipstick, and so did I. But never at home, only after I got to school where I did a presto-change-o in the john.
Eventually the whole idea of being like others became stifling and unappealing. What began as a way to cope, blossomed into a preference for the odd and the interesting.
When my mother discovered from one of my teachers that I was not only dressing like Marty Maraschino from Grease, but hanging out with the older greasers, she sold our house in Redford and we moved to Garden City where there were no hoods, no blacks, no Jews, no Arabs and no Asians. After mourning the loss of my Pink Lady comrades and getting over the culture shock, I eventually found my people, my lifelong friends. They weren't like the others and had no desire to be--three girls who were full-blooded Polish, Norwegian and Finnish and who thought my full-blooded Lebanese heritage was cool. My uniqueness was my ticket to acceptance among them. They held "outsider" status in high esteem.
The Print Gallery was unique. There were no shops like it around. I could shape it any way I chose. We had a large museum gift shop, held poetry readings and other events. Later, I created a sweet shop within the gallery called Must Have Sweets where I sold my handmade products locally and to museums and gift shops across the country. An edible chocolate bar with art images infused into them and framed in a gold wooden frame was chosen as one of Oprah's favorites for O magazine.
There is something empowering about doing what others say you can't do. And that I could actually start trends. I inadvertently turned my Mona Lisa logo into a local celebrity with Mona Lisa Mania, a website about all things Mona that made me an incidental expert on the painting. It was featured in Donald Sassoon's notable book, Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting. Later, the BBC flew out from London to interview me for a documentary on Leonardo DaVinci.
In 1985, after much haranguing, I was the first to convince the Detroit Institute of Arts to publish a non-exhibition poster for sale to the public, before it was their practice to do so.
"The Nut Gatherers" by Bouguereau was the most popular painting at the DIA but they refused to acknowledge public demand for a print. After numerous pleas, the board finally allowed me to produce five thousand copies, of which I was to give them one hundred, and a fee of $250 to rent their transparency of the painting. Those one hundred posters sold out the first week, and ironically, the Detroit Institute of Arts became my best customer, purchasing most of them to sell in their museum shop. It was so successful they sent their staff to my gallery to consult with me about making changes to their gift shop offerings. When "The Nut Gatherers" sold out, I asked to do a reprint, but they turned me down saying they were going to do it themselves.
Owning my own gallery, there was no atmosphere of competition, no race and so the notion didn't occur to me that if I wasn't number one, I wouldn't be good enough. I was just doing my thing of jumping through as many hurdles as it took to create this world I could share with others.
I also didn't realize until later that my landlord, Harry Brody, had a chance to bet on a lot of other horses who were a sure thing for his retail space. At a gathering, before I opened, I overheard shop owners talking about wanting to lease the space promised to me.
Nervous, I went and knocked on the trailer door again. "Did you rent my store out to someone else?" I asked defiantly.
"No!" he said in his typical curt manner. "I told you it's yours and it's yours!" He didn't even ask for a deposit. Later when I became savvier about the retail world, I realized that he took a huge risk.
"Why did you rent the store to me?"
"I had a good feeling about you," he said, in what became a fatherly tone. He treated me like a daughter, arguing about the color of the sign I chose. When he denied a famous Detroit ice cream shop from opening next door to me, I was upset. "It will bring more business!" I said.
"I don't want people dripping ice cream all over your prints," he insisted.
Growing up, my younger brother was the favorite child. I accepted it and participated in this sort of male revelry. Unlike me, a uniform-less Camp Fire Girl reject, he became a Cub Scout, a member of the Boy's Club, and had a set of drums. The rationale was that boys need a father figure and since he didn't have one, he needed the exposure to other men.
In the Lebanese culture, men can be viewed as superior. In American culture, we women still have some proving to do. Though it's getting better, it still feels "unlady-like" to use the C word—competitive. But let me say it. I'm competitive. It's not that I want to win, I need to win. To be the best, even though the feeling of accomplishment is as fleeting as the two minutes it takes to run the Kentucky Derby.
I ignored this competitive urge as a teen, except on the rare occasions when I played a friendly game of picnic softball with family and friends. In that very specific situation, there was something inside that surprised me. It was like a wild stallion held in the gate of my little body. At bat, I wanted to kill the ball, in the outfield I wanted to pounce on it. And I ran the bases so fast I could barely walk the next day. Weird, I thought, but soon realized that I was simply saying girls can do this too!
So here I am having experienced success in certain areas, confident in some ways, neurotic in others. Why all this introspection, and why all of a sudden? Here's the thing I've learned about the poetry book: I have a voice. It's not like the others. Some may like it, some may think it's crap. The thing is, who will I believe?
If nine out of ten like it and only one doesn't, I know I will still believe the one. Surely, they have peered inside the crack of my veneer to find tiny mental cops coming to arrest me for being a presumptuous fool, shouting, "Handcuff this imposter!"
When I consulted a therapist to deal with the increasing anxiety, my question was, "How will I get rid of this terrible insecurity?" She told me that I've been looking at it the wrong way. That I was uncomfortable because I was asking the wrong question.
"The truth is, Diane, you will never get rid of it."
Oh, no. That was not what I wanted to hear. My damage is irreparable. I knew it.
She went on to say that it's the same for everyone. "All you have to do is find ways to quiet it down when it comes up. That you can do."
This was a revelation akin to realizing you don't have to eat the whole pancake in one bite. That I wouldn't be put out to pasture if I wasn't perfect. She added, "Think of it as a race you can run again and again, which after all is what you've told me you enjoy."
With that, I felt better about being average, part of the hoi polloi. A human being with frailties, who like every other person on the planet, can't eradicate feelings. I knew this on some level, but living it in emotional versus intellectual time provided a deeper understanding. The new hurdle is to look for ways to assuage the insecurities, the way one might comfort a child.
Let me tell you why I cried on that first day at the gallery. It was because I had been a fighter, and, in that moment, the fight was over. The game was won, and I was that kid with no one left to play with. Looking back, I realize my greatest pleasure is not in the getting, it's in the creating, and despite being knocked down so many times, it's doing the thing I didn't know I could do. The book has won several awards and I've made progress in feeling pretty good about that. I don't know how long it will last, but for the moment I can stand a little taller, with or without four-inch platforms.
Title image "Threatening the Life It Belongs To" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2019.