Thursday, January 7, 2010

framing ben jonson; or, putting the shabby in shabby chic

A couple of years ago a literature professor gave me one page from a 17th century Ben Jonson folio as a christmas gift. I have no idea of its value, but I know it is something I needed to treat with care. My roomate at the time also recieved one, as did everyone in the seminar (which is prolly almost all of my readership, so you all know exactly what I am talking about here), and she framed hers immediately.  I balked at the cost of framing and my page remained wedged between two pieces of cardboard in the flimsy plastic sleeve it came in, along with a photocopy of the folio cover to index its origins. I was beginning to notice some wear and tear on my page and that prompted me to get it framed before I did any permanent damage.

Yesterday, I finally had the thing framed. I chose a fancy schmancy champagne gilded frame and had it contrasted with a chololate brown velvet textured  matte. It looks gorgeous. It is luxurious and rich looking. When the framer unwrapped the brown paper and revealed the work I could not help but exclaim, okay, squeal, about how gorgeous it was. It was easy to see how proud she was of her work, and she even took a picture of it to add to her portfolio. So, in the glow of such admiration, I brought it home and hung it over my World Mart-Cost Plus country white roll desk, next to my second hand olive green dresser, above my JCPenney "fall pattern" floor rug, next to a thrift store find framed print by one of my favorite romantic artists. And in the blink of an eye my room that had looked shabby chic just a moment before, now just looked shabby. 

I do not come from money. My mother's family were vagabond okies who lived in trailers and drove cars that they bought totalled and then fixed up to sell. My father's were loggers and laborers. Not one of my grandparents graduated from elementary school. My mother was the first in her family to graduate high school, my father the first to go to college. I know that education does not always result in money, but usually those with money get college degrees. So there is a correlation, it just wasn't what I thought it was.

When I was a child I dreamed of being upper middle class. I wanted to "dress" for dinner. Have season tickets to the opera, get my hair done, and travel to exotic foreign lands.  Now, I know my imagination could only reach upper middle class, because I could not fathom what it was like to be truly wealthy. I took on the trappings of the rich through food, clothing, and books, and the arts. I learned who the great masters were so that I could talk about paintings and sculpture, I read Shakespeare, and watched foreign films. I was eight the first time I watched a black and white movie in french.  I couldn't even read the subtitles quickly enough to follow the plot. It didn't matter I was hooked. I wore pearls and scarves to the dinner table. I learned to ride horses and was always secretly angry that I had to ride "western."  In my head I connected this lifestyle to education and I vowed to go to college. Then in college, I decided to become a college professor.

It wasn't until I was in a PhD program that I realized that education and books were not going to make me rich. Books are just books. They do not mark a social cultural class. Teaching college is about teaching college, not wearing cashmere sweaters and driving volvos. A page from a Ben Jonson folio is a page, no matter the room in which it hangs. When I quit school and entered the job market I learned the hard way that I will never be rich. But, at least now, I understand my longing in ways that I never could before. Now, I am returning to school to get a degree to get a job, and not gain an identity.