Mary Anne Mohanraj

An Ongoing, Erratic Diary

23 February 2010, 12:11 PM
  I hadn't run into this word before, sprezzatura. I've needed that word for a long time. "Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as 'a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.'” (Wikipedia) I found it via a blog entry talking about study groups in law school, about how even in a deeply-competitive environment, there's a value to generously helping your compatriots, because it makes you look even better. You're so good, you can afford to be generous.

On some deep level, I'm tremendously invested in sprezzatura. In my childhood, I internalized the drive to be the best -- I blame my Asian parents, mostly, who, when I brought home an A- would ask, Why isn't it an A? But even worse, I not only want to be the best -- I want it to look effortless. I don't want to display the grinding work that it often takes to get the job done -- the getting up at 4 a.m. the day of the party so that there's time to cook all the curries and clean the house and put out flowers before everyone arrives. The flowers are important, because they epitomize that sort of easy grace. They say, life is relaxed and elegant and casually effortless. I want the guests to arrive and enjoy themselves and not think about all the work that went into preparing for the party -- and some of that is genuine hospitality. I don't want them to feel bad for me, because that might take away from their pleasure. But some of it is sprezzatura. It's good to be great, but it's even better to be effortlessly fabulous.

I don't do this on purpose. I don't know when I absorbed this idea of sprezzatura, but it's become an integral part of my psyche, an automatic element of how I do things, so that I actually have to remind myself to show my work sometimes. Let people see the sweat and tears. I've been working on that, because I think sprezzatura is actually potentially really damaging, especially to other women, who look at someone who seems to be doing it all, effortlessly, and wonder why their own lives are such a mess. Wonder why they can't balance a full-time job, and childcare, and partner care, and exercise and eating right and creative outlets and and and... Why can't they do it all, when she can, and she makes it looks so easy. Sprezzatura sets impossible standards, and in a sense, it's anti-feminist to uphold those images.

And yet. I do love it, that grace. That brightness that is actually effortless, rather than just appearing to be so. Perfect balancing, beautiful moments. And so I strive for it, and then find myself committing sprezzatura again in the striving. And people come up to me and ask how I manage to do it all. Ask whether anything ever upsets me. Admiring, but angry too. Quietly raging, at me, at themselves.

These days, I just keep trying to expose the work under the beauty. I'm glad you liked the fish curry -- I couldn't help myself, I got up an hour earlier to get it done, and now I'm exhausted. That was just stupid. Or, I cheated and used a pre-made sauce for the base -- let me show it to you. Exposing the hard labor (or the clever workarounds) that are necessary to trying to do it all, for the sake of family, of profession, of self, of community. I believe that labor offers a different kind of grace.

Also, it can be a good reality check. Because these days, people look at the work in what I'm doing and tell me I'm crazy, and that I'm going to give myself an ulcer, and that I should just relax a little already, before I work myself into an early grave. Which, you know, would kind of defeat the whole appearing effortless thing. When enough people tell me that, sometimes I listen. :-)


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