In the childhood of my generation, the word “talent” was common. A label, those who wore it seen as having been born that way, and what would later be described by the community of faith as a “gift.”
But, what of such a gift? Can I tell you?
In the spring of 1982, I took a job as a third shift waitress in a Greek dinor. In that restaurant, nobody sought talent. What was expected was skill, a product of presence of mind. The application of effort to the task at hand. And, presence of mind seemed to me to be that most elusive of traits, the mother of common sense.
Presence of mind meant that you would think only about that which was right before you in the literal world, the job to be done. And, common sense was its essential and automatic recognition.
And, so I had neither. For the first time in my life, I had willingly placed myself in an environment within which I could not function, let alone conquer. Having come to believe at the tender age of thirteen that fame meant nothing, and power meant friends, I also saw that friends brought power, I had few, and power was everything. And, here, I had no power at all.
Oh; I was twenty five years old now. Perhaps this is significant.
Yet, here we were, in a room full of people prepared to take everybody at face value. And, I was a disaster. I couldn’t pour coffee; I couldn’t make change; and, worse, I couldn’t remember how to do anything despite being given instruction by somebody who dropped the “g’s” from every active verb. I was “Vera”; I had to learn this craft.
Talent had been my identity. I “could do” things that mystified others. From childhood, from the earliest coordination of crayon to thumb and forefinger, images emerged on paper that bore their recognizable likenesses. I was at a loss to explain it. Later, years later, I would be at equal loss to defend it.
A waitress in a dinor was incognito. A table-server could hide – behind a polyester uniform, and a name tag that looked like everybody else’s. And, a good waitress could remember, and retrieve, and assess, and react, and do all of those things in constant physical motion. This wasn’t art; this was something else. Nope; not talent, as I knew it.
American society having been founded upon common sense, and through the presence of mind of its revolutionary survivors alone, it stood to reason (if nothing else) that artists and notions of talent were to be relegated to the recessive gene pool. [ see: Hitler and the extermination of Jewish artists.] And, said society gathered its own under the banner of practical, God-ordained common wisdoms. Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian; yet, among American statesmen, he marched right along with the parade of saints. Saints, who bowed at the altar of industry and hard work, both hands to the plow.
America’s athletes have been displacing its artists for decades, establishing a status in the eyes of the masses equal to that of the shamans and mystics of the East to their own people. Michael Jordan — who was he? Was he a “talent”? He appeared to have a natural, effortless ability to “do” in a distinctive, unparalleled style and at a consistently superior rate. But, Michael Jordan had rickets,and stayed after school in junior high every night to shoot a basketball into a hoop until he could do so every time. And, because he was the only boy who did, he became: Michael Jordan, an extraordinary, one-of-a-kind professional.
If talent manifests as an effortless ability, many are alienated; if the result of effort, people respond with admiration. In early childhood, traits which distinguish one child from the group disconnect him or her from the greater society. Children with like distinguishing traits (or, like observable traits) learn that a group formed of their own kind must follow certain rules: each member must compete against the others for supremacy, to bear the banner of highest standard.
But, inborn traits are beyond the vessel which contains them. When the vessel is expected to prove its worthiness as a carrier, that vessel needs fortification to avoid springing a weak leak. Whence does this come? Love, acceptance, identification, bond….the requirements of the sustenance of life. And, how will such a child find them? How will he or she attract these if the requirement to prove inherent worth as the vessel is constant? And, if he finds them, how will he avail of their nourishment without sacrificing at the altar of social commodity?
Children born with outstanding traits learn to expect to be exploited. Their world is a small, exclusive stage, set apart from the larger social forum. As they move through the spheres of life, they do not need to be taught the meaning of commodity.
My grandmother, born in 1890, was, as a child, not regarded by any who knew her as a person of talent. She was neither a singer, nor a dancer, nor actress, nor painter, nor poet, nor a skater, a skiier, or gymnast. She learned to cook, as second maid to a wealthy Eastern Pennsylvania family, and cultivated flowers and vegetables that rivaled the Secret Garden. She opened her home to her extensive family and friends, gathering them all around her dinner table. She learned to sew, making clothes and draperies and, together with her husband, braided rugs and home made bread for all who knew her. She wrote letters to hundreds of loved ones throughout her entire life, and sat in her rocking chair praying for each one. Hers was a spiritual faith, not bound by the expectations, conventions, or systems imposed by the theater of human behavior.
Contemporary American society persists in making its own monsters. It exalts itself, represses its most treasured, and takes its own prisoners. Learned, or inborn, on the world stage Americans are its most talented actors. If, by life’s end, there is a glimmer of good to be had, may all the best gifts manifest in us all.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
circa 1997/revised 1/7/15
all rights reserved. Thank you so much.