I am currently on vacation in Florida with my family (minus one stepson away at college who is dearly missed). Instead of writing a new blog post for the week, I wanted to share something old. As I dug through my archives (which, turns out, actually takes longer than writing something new) I landed on a post from almost exactly seven years ago. It was day 100 of my 100 paintings in 100 days project, and I painted an eagle inspired by the poetry of my now dear friend, Butch.
It’s been a minute since I really looked back at the beginning, when I was just starting to paint seriously. The almost ten year old who jumped out of bed this morning, alert and ready at the words “boats’s ready, let’s go fishing,” was not quite three when I wrote that 100 day post. I was still toting him around on my hip and watching Buzz Lightyear on repeat from an actual DVD. There weren’t any other kids in my life. I was finding my way, paint stroke by paint stroke, completely unsure and unsteady and yet never more determined to see it all through. Without realizing it, I often take for granted the beginning of the story. The part where anything, especially disaster, was possible. For the first time that I can ever remember, I decided to pursue something despite what other people said or cautioned me against. I decided to listen to my own voice, quiet and timid, but persistent.
Reading it again, my friend’s poem still makes my eyes water. What a gift it was to me then and what a treasure it is to me now, seven years on the other side, still pulling out my paint and tools, just in case anything should decide to take flight.
Here’s the original post:
Day 100/100. It’s All About the Doing, July 9, 2015
100 days. Oh. My. God. And I don’t mean that in an in-vain kind of way. I mean it in the awe-struck, completely inadequate way. Not that I am so impressed by my own silly achievement as much as I am amazed at what a silly achievement can do for a person– take them from darkness into light. And all I had to do was paint? Are you kidding me?
I will never forget where I was almost three years ago. Wearing a baggy yellow nightgown, standing barefoot on the tile of my bathroom, hair dripping water on the ground. My marriage was ending and my newborn wouldn’t stop crying. I was looking down at the yellow cloth bunched around my middle and said these words to a friend on the phone: When I think about the rest of my life (i.e, when I picture it, envision it, “paint the scene”), I just don’t want to live it. In that moment, I was no artist. There was nothing I could do with the raw materials before me. I didn’t think I had anything to work with.
I know I’ve written about this before, but it feels different because of the ever-growing distance between me and the woman in a frumpy yellow nightgown. Okay, I still wear it, and in most respects I’m still her, but my vision is broader and my hope more profound. I’m not a victim of circumstance, but an artist who designs a future. One little painting at a time.
100 paintings in 100 days, like all of my daily painting pursuits isn’t about the paintings but about the doing. Doing is power. I’m so glad I learned that.
I spent a long time trying to decide what I was going to do, but it wasn’t until I picked up the brush, figured out some mildly tech-y stuff, and just started that the figuring out part began. And it’s still happening. New opportunities keep presenting themselves like little imperfectly wrapped gifts from God-knows-where. But they didn’t start arriving until I started doing.
I envy artists who seem to have it all figured out. They’ve got their “thing” and they do it really well, market it precisely.
But my thing is a path. It’s a commitment to keep walking the twists and turns, embracing new directions and discoveries along the way. Taking some wrong turns. Occasionally getting lost. So my thing isn’t a thing; it’s a promise: I will keep doing this because I believe it will continue leading me to diverse somewheres.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone I’d met in 2009. On the patio at Pat O’Brien’s, I discussed Flannery O’Connor with him and his wife who were visiting from Arkansas. I never remembered his name until the email in which he reminded me of our conversation and some things I said that I don’t quite remember saying. It’s amazing how I can be more forthcoming and honest with certain strangers than I am with people I’ve known my whole life. I detest small talk which is what talking to strangers mostly is. But every once in a while you meet someone with whom there is no preamble, with whom heartfelt conversation is not the reward for hours or even years of mild pleasantries.
I’d like to share the whole email here because I’ve been trying to summarize it and not quite doing it justice. He included a poem at the end that makes me cry when I read it. It reminds me that saying “no” to the good things I don’t really want has allowed me to witness things I do want (maybe need?), the things that are more than just good but a good fit to boot.
So here it is:
I’ll begin with apologies for such a lengthy email, not my normal style.
You may remember that some years ago, my wife and I had the accidental good fortune to meet you with some of your friends at Pat O’Brien’s, where the rather amazing coincidence of our mutual deep regard for the work of Flannery O’Connor was discovered. I later read your Master’s thesis, and looked at the art on your website, as you had mentioned it to me. I remember you saying then that you were feeling some urgency to find your artistic voice, that O’Connor had done so much in her thirty-nine years, and you felt the need to get moving in some similar way. I also remember telling my wife that I thought you were, as Cormac McCarthy says, ‘Carrying the fire’, and that I hoped you didn’t let life get its confining arms too much around you, and pull you away from your true passion.
I retired from Entergy in early 2014, and had the very interesting task of figuring out what I wanted the next phase of my life to be about, after working for large companies for about 40 years. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to take that kind of look at things. One thing that I remembered was a painting I had seen at your website showing a barefoot girl putting her toe in the water, trousers rolled, with the great T.S. Eliot poem. I loved that painting, with its challenge and its courage. Went to the website, and found….website gone. “Oh no,” I thought, “they got to her….the ‘numbers and normal’ people…got to her.”
Imagine my relief when I found your new, and excellent, website. You could not imagine how deeply pained I was when I read your story, and of the suffering you had gone through. You also cannot imagine how inspired I was by your determined course to be…and make a living being…an artist. It has made such a difference for me as I have tried to go forward with this next phase. I’ve always thought of myself as a person with a fair amount of courage, but you really expanded my sense of my own courage, especially relative to the artistic.
Now, I don’t fool myself that I am an artist, but over the years I’ve written a bunch of songs that I never had time to really do anything with. I’ve started a book that I hope to complete, I don’t think it is art, but it may be a good story at that. And at different times over the years, I’ve written some cowboy poetry that folks have found to be good and interesting. I should probably say…I understand that cowboy poetry, at least as written by me, is to real poetry as, say, John Wayne as an actor is to Sir Lawrence Olivier. But anyhow, it’s what I do sometimes.
So when you spoke of your 100 days of art, I was quite intrigued, and encouraged, and a little challenged. I decided that whereas I didn’t think I could do a poem or a song a day, I would do a piece of work each week while you were in your quest. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Started a poem but couldn’t finish it in a week….thought okay, a poem a month during this period. Still not so easy…elderly parents, night teaching job, family illness, wonderful (in every respect) but time demanding grandson, resistance, lack of discipline, more resistance. So finally I said to myself, is it too much to get at least this one poem finished within these hundred days????
This stuff is hard! But I did finish it….or at least finished it for today…still got a couple of places that want a better poet, albeit a cowboy poet.
I’ve attached it here, and I hope you enjoy it. It is dedicated to you, for your inspiration and example. Helping me, and I’m sure others, have the courage to transcend the ‘numbers and the normal’. I’m going to try.
All the best! You’re in the home stretch!
When She Took Wing to Fly
Respectfully dedicated to Louisiana artist Denise Hopkins
Every day for ninety days, without a day of rest,
She walked the trail, and climbed the cliff, to reach that eagle’s nest.
She brought her paints, and canvas boards, and set them on the ledge,
And stood there humming while she worked, not two foot from the edge.
And come the dusk, she’d climb back down, and work her way on back.
Another painting on the walls, of her old tar-paper shack.
But each one spoke its special truth, of beauty, strength and grace,
Of work, and love, and life each day unfolding in that place.
Slim was out there sometimes, fixing fence and riding herd.
He’d watched her climb that cliff each day, to paint that sacred bird.
And being the good man that he was, he thought to help her out,
He’d tell her all about the jobs, where they was hiring thereabout.
‘Mrs. Rollins down at the hardware store is needin’ someone now,
To keep the books, mind the place, and manage the accounts.
They say the pay is pretty good, as it goes here in our town,
And you won’t have to climb no cliffs, or face no eagle down.’
‘Or over at the ‘No Quit Ranch’, the place I draw my pay
We could use a person just like you, to help run that crazy place.
And they tell me that our little school is growin’ awful fast.
I hear they’re needin’ someone to teach the writing and the math.’
But she just smiled, and said, ‘Well Slim, I know you mean the best,
And I must really be a sight to see, climbing up to reach that nest.
But I’ve taught in school, I’ve kept the books, I’ve even run a store.
Now those are things that just will never work for me no more.’
‘So it’s me and the eagle, face to face, I watch her standing guard.
I love each brushstroke that I make, though I’ve never worked so hard.
And there’s a little baby eagle, in that nest there in the sky.
I intend to paint him on the day that he takes wing to fly.’
Then one day she just stood there tired…discouraged…on that shelf.
‘What on Earth am I doing here?’ she wondered to herself.
Empty canvas, brushes dry, but still ready for some play,
And she’d made that promise to herself, ‘a painting every day’.
‘What would have been so bad,’ she thought, ‘to have just one day of rest?’
And right about that time she heard some noises from the nest.
The little eagle bird was hopping over to the side.
It shook its feathers, flapped its wings, then looked straight into her eyes.
And then without a speck of doubt, without a moment’s fear.
It lifted up and launched itself, straight out into the air.
She caught her breath, it seemed at first that bird would surely fall,
But it caught the wind, then soared and flew, beside that mountain wall.
She grabbed her brush, her boldest paints, wild strokes against the board.
Her heart told her she’d never really seen an eagle fly before.
She froze that moment in her mind, and throughout all her years,
She called it up each time she needed strength to calm her fears.
I guess she’s out there even now, painting on some shelf,
Selling some work every now and then, to make a living for herself.
Birds and sky and God and man, have felt her loving artist’s eye.
But that was the time….yes, that was the time….when she took wing to fly.