I would like to propose an idea to you, the idea that perhaps life is not a path that we walk at all, but a work of art that we paint.
I was having a conversation the other day with someone whose life is also in the pupa stage like mine. They said to me that they were worried their life wouldn’t turn out the way they envisioned it, and I so like the metaphor that I shared with them, that I’m sharing it again here so that I never forget this idea. Hopefully, you will like the metaphor too.
“My life looks absolutely nothing like I thought it would when I was your age,” I said, “So, no, your life isn’t going to turn out how you envision it now.” I thought for a minute and then said, “It’s like a painting…”
You see, my oldest spawn is an artist. They use many different mediums but one of their favorites is oil paint. Before Mori started oil painting, I knew less than nothing about it except Bob Ross used it to make happy trees. Now, however, I know infinitely more, which is to say, I have a very basic understanding of oil paint, really less than basic. It is enough, though, to explain this idea that life is, perhaps, not a path but an oil painting.
When you paint with acrylic paint, which most of us have done a few times in our lives thanks to childhood, you realize that it dries very quickly. Inexperienced painters, like myself, find it hard to fix mistakes made while painting with acrylic paint. It’s fine (sort of) if you catch the mistake before the paint dries but it is harder once it dries. Painting with oil paint, however, is an entirely different ball game.
Oil paint can take days, even weeks to dry properly. What does this mean for those pesky mistakes? Wipe them off and start over. This is an oversimplification but it’s basically true, and for this metaphor, that’s all you need to know. Don’t like the way you painted that rose in the corner? Wipe it off. Put off by the background color you chose? Not a thang, remove and start again.
“It’s like a painting,” I said, “When you sit down to start a new painting with a blank canvas, you have a decent idea in your mind of what you want to paint and where it is going to end up. But what happens when you include an element in the painting you were initially excited about but now think it doesn’t work with the rest of the composition? Or what if you like the element but don’t like your execution of it? You wipe it off and start over.”
I went on to explain that when I was 18, I had a very clear vision of what my life would look like but over time, different elements that I wanted to include in the painting no longer worked. I sacrificed things I wanted in the painting in order to keep the elements I REALLY wanted. To me, the most important elements to keep in the painting of my life were my children, family, and marriage. The other things I had originally envisioned for my life at 18 weren’t as important as making sure my children, family, and marriage stayed the focus of my painting. As my life progressed, the idea of what my completed painting would look like changed too. My children, family, and marriage becoming the focus of my life meant that the entire composition changed many times. Elements were added or removed. The background color shifted, morphed, evolved. If it were possible to look at the rough sketch for my life I’d drawn up in my 18 year old mind and compare it to the painting I am currently working on, you’d see that they look nothing alike.
Right now, the painting of my life has gone in an entirely new direction. One of the elements that I fought to keep and sacrificed for just walked off the canvas. The last few years I’ve had a very specific vision for my future. I had planned on turning into the Mom from every Hallmark Christmas movie. You know, when the main character returns to their small hometown for Christmas, single and depressed, and the Mom has all the Christmas magic ready to soothe their baby’s woes. She’s the one who decorates their comfortable yet spacious upper middle class home with classy yet somehow nostalgic Christmas decorations, buys matching pajamas and/or holiday sweaters for the whole family, makes the BEST hot cocoa you’ve ever had in your life, bakes so many treats and cookies you wonder if she ever sleeps, and somehow finds a way to help their sweet single angel find love. In addition to turning into Hallmark Mommy, I planned to write a book, travel with my husband, and be the best dang Grammy to my hypothetical grandchildren ever. Now? I don’t know.
I told my young listener when we were discussing this idea that our lives could be paintings that, in a way, I have been given a second canvas. The life I’ve built for the last 21 years with my ex-husband, that’s done. In a lot of ways I can say that painting is finished, it is time to start a new one. Somewhere, I’m standing in a nondescript hallway, hanging that painting, making that hand motion like I’m brushing dust off my hands because really I’m finished with this, and walking dramatically away into a new sunrise (not a sunset because my story isn’t over). It’s time to sit down at the easel and get started on my new work of art.
This time around? I’m including some of those elements I sacrificed for the last painting and I’m adding some new ones I hadn’t thought of before. And guess what? Some of those elements will probably get wiped off and replaced too.
We all make sacrifices in our work of art in order to keep the elements we truly care about the focus of the piece. And sometimes we look at what we’ve created and we don’t really like how it’s turned out. That’s ok because we’re painting with oil paint. If you don’t like something, wipe it off. Wipe the whole damn canvas clean if you have to but don’t give up, this is your work of art, keeping working at it. Figure out what’s most important to you and build your design around that.
We tend to think of life as a path with a destination in mind. We continue down this path, stopping at forks in the road, worried if we choose the wrong way we won’t end up at the castle. Sometimes the path offers 2 roads, sometimes 3 or 4 or 5. Each time we stand before these crossroads, we tell ourselves that this choice will determine our future. That, my friends, is nothing but an anxiety inducing mind fuck. And honestly, it’s just not true.
Obviously, choices have consequences that lead to other choices and consequences that impact our lives in positive and negative ways. But we’re not stuck on a path with no way back, damned to live out the office job we took back at fork #56 just because we went that direction “on the path”.
Maybe Hyman Roth is wrong. Maybe you don’t have to put up with stuff just because this is the business you’ve chosen. Maybe you don’t have to worry so much when life hits a crossroad. Maybe you aren’t stuck heading in the wrong direction if you choose the “wrong” fork. Maybe you get as many do overs as you need.
Because maybe life isn’t a path.
Maybe life is an oil painting.
I like this idea a lot more than “wow, I just wasted 21 years heading down a dead end.” I didn’t waste my time. I completed my first painting. It’s hanging in that hallway. I’m off to start my next. I’m not stuck in the Molasses Swamp somewhere because King Kandy went off to live in a new castle. I’m wearing a kick ass artist’s smock with a ridiculous looking beret holding a paint pallet, brush poised over the canvas, giving sexy Bob Ross energy.
In my last post, I called myself goo. (Attractive, right?) I compared myself to a butterfly in the midst of the pupa stage, chilling in my chrysalis, rebuilding myself into something with wings. That, all of that, is part of my new painting. I’ve got new heights to soar to and I am painting those heights onto my canvas right now. Will they stay a part of my new painting? Only time will tell.
“So, no, your life isn’t going to turn out how you envision it now,” I said to my young friend, “You’re going to sacrifice some of the elements you want in order to keep the ones that really matter to you. Your painting is going to change and evolve over time. You don’t have to worry so much about making the wrong choice right now because you’re not tied to anything forever. You’re not walking down a path with no way back. You’re creating a work of art that is your life.”