How to end up tearful in the National Portrait Gallery on a Tuesday (we’ll call this a fictional account, based on actual events):

  1. Take on too many things, more than the massive amount of things that are automatically expected of you.
  2. Fail yourself, fail everyone else (which comes first?  It isn’t really clear).
  3. Realize you might not be able to do this.  You think you can.  But maybe not.
  4. Think about quitting all of the Hard Things.
  5. Think about how that won’t even really make it better.
  6. Talk to someone about your work as a therapist.  About sessions that feel like runaway trains, about people bursting into tears.  Don’t burst into tears.
  7. Don’t burst into tears.
  8. Don’t burst into tears until thirty minutes later, when you arrive at your own therapy and say, “I feel…  overwhelmed.”
  9. Think about quitting all of the Hard Things.
  10. Check voicemail, realize your wish to have this particular afternoon off has more or less been granted.
  11. Wander a bookstore.  Pick up some Lydia Davis, even though you know the likelihood of reading anything for pleasure in the next fifteen months is slim to none.
  12. Bike towards home, past the National Portrait Gallery.  Park in front of it.  Buy Parliaments (even though you don’t smoke), lighters, light bulbs (wrong size), nail polish in a shade that is more or less the exact shade of pink as your actual nails.
  13. Chain smoke.
  14. Enter the museum.  Opt to go to the Portrait side, instead of your usual American Art side.
  15. Breeze through the presidential portraits, which are too formal, or at best contrivedly (that’s a word, I decided, with an accent over the “ed”) casual.
  16. Except maybe Obama in the lobby, smiling and serious.
  17. Find the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.  Look at faces, at people.  The Washington Post says, “Portraits always fail, at least if held to the highest standard: to ­re-create the person in full, the living, breathing, fully present being. They may be likenesses, sometimes uncannily so, but they are never adequate substitutes for what they represent.”  Disagree with this statement.  Portraits do so much more than re-create the person — they do so in such a way that we see other people, people far beyond the actual subject, and (hopefully) parts of ourselves.
  18. Think about how these people in the portraits are you, are the people you work with.  There are several portraits of survivors, of pain, of young naivete, of aging, of dying.  The humanity of it is beautiful and overwhelming.  The artistry — the fact that each piece was made by someone’s hand, directed by a mind — is also overwhelming.
  19. Tear up in front of a few of the images; one of a girl who is part of a congregation (no idea of the artist or title) is particularly moving for some reason.  And another (“Constellation-Mana” by Kumi Yamashita) in which the artist uses a single piece of thread to make a portrait…
  20. Sit down in front of Buffalo Milk Yogurt by Jennifer Levonian, an animated portrait of Levonian’s friend, Corey Fogal, as he has a “nervous breakdown” in a Whole Foods-esque market.  Image
  21. Recognize yourself, the disconnect between where you came from and where you are, and let the tears slide from your eyes.

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