Of late, I’ve felt a bit like Julie Andrews (sans looks, voice or talent, of course), twirling through the colorful mountain meadows of my own endeavors, moved to warbling and joyous, if somewhat tuneless, song: “The hills are alive with so many wonderful things to do!” I’ve been busy, yes, but with remarkable things in what feels like a mid-life creative springtime!
Slowly, as I’ve connected with like-minded souls, our little nonprofit Learning is for Everyone, is rising from the obscurity of poorly defined but good intentions, to do great things, as we gradually and more cleanly mold our shared social visions. Sometimes you create something with nothing more than the germ of a thought and a vague notion of direction. If the time isn’t right (think Leonardo DaVinci and his flying machine) the effort becomes experience to draw upon later. If the time is right or if you can wait it out (think Macintosh), a vision can blossom in stunning beauty, or at least remarkable utility.
Maybe no one besides me is all that stunned by the beauty of our growing clarity of mission and focus, but I’m happy enough to warble in my imaginary meadow! I’m looking forward to seeing the fruits of six months planning coming together in TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2011 on Saturday, and delighted that my hopes for a Tampa Bay Mini Maker Faire are finally real enough for a social media presence. When we first founded Learning is for Everyone, one of our earliest visions was to create a magazine. Now our first issue of The Curiosity Driven Life is underway.
I love bringing together these community focused efforts, these showcases of the innovative and inventive – they’re like some super three dimensional social performance art, interactive celebrations of the spoken word, and the creative mind. It’s a crafting of living literature, curating a circue humanitae of infinite beauty.
What is it, I find myself wondering, that makes these experiences so interesting to me, so compelling? I ask the same thing when I look through the camera lens, at a world that reveals itself in so many subtle and nuanced ways as I change my angle of perspective. What is it that makes some things –from ideas to images – really stand out?
I went hiking with a friend recently, an equally enthusiastic shutterbug who’s as content as I to walk slowly through the woods and watch the play of light on leaves and angle for the perfect shot of a little brown mushroom while marveling at its delicate fluted edges. It took us two hours to hike less than a mile, a wonderful soothing two hours in the company of a like-minded observationist. She understands a long gaze into the muddy shallows of a creek, and appreciates in kind the individual reds and yellows of maples leaves against an otherwise dun background. By itself – mud. A single bright leaf brightly haloed in ripples – an organic canvas.
Artistically, that one image can make all the difference in the world that that one incident, without evidence to the contrary, might not, even if it should.
Consider the image of a little girl running naked and burned through the streets of Hiroshima after the atom bomb, of another little girl stoically walking to a school that didn’t want her there in the 60s; of a single man standing before a tank in Tiananmen Square, and most recently, of a Shanghai toddler, lying bleeding in on a street, ignored by as many as 18 passersby. All pivotal images that, hopefully, make most of us stop and think.
In the hubbub of our 21st century lives, it can hard to distinguish what’s important from the background noise of blaring media, to pick out that one thing that perhaps we should really pay attention to. But what kind of a world is so preoccupied that ordinary people fail to notice and help an injured child lying in the street. How could this not be the one thing in our field of view?
There’s a wonderful Zen koan that I’ve mentioned here before. An acolyte visits a wise man who shares a modest meal with him while they chat.
“What is the meaning of life?” the acolyte asks the master.
“Are you finished eating?” asks the master.
“Yes,” replies the student, eager for the secret.
“Then wash your bowl,” says the master. And that is the end of their discussion.
Because that’s really all there is to it. Wash your dishes. Take out your trash. Admire the view there and back. Be where you are.
While casting about in consideration of “that one thing”, I ran a contest on Fine Art America by that same title. Although the images entered all featured one focal point, they were all vastly different. But they were also all alike in one significant way: they each spotlighted something that caught the artist’s eye. That one thing is our own awareness, our ability to be moved by the beauty of the sturdy pony in the snow, or the singular, simple elegance a blue granite dipper, or by the way a cityscape suggests itself in the bristles of a red paint brush, or the way light glints off water or to hear music in each others’ voices, or find joy in every breath, simply because we’re able to draw it.
If we lose that awareness, or fail to cultivate it, if we live lives so jaded and isolated that we cannot meet one another’s eyes in passing or fail to be moved to help a child in the street, or fall short of appreciating the play of light and shadow on a late fall afternoon, or how rain sounds on a roof, then all is for naught. Tomorrow’s TEDxYouth event is an opportunity to exercise awareness – of oneself, of one another, of our shared human connections. I can’t think of any better gift to give one another, and especially to give our youth, than the gift of listening to them, and caring about what they have to say.
I hope they’ll continue to cultivate their awareness, of themselves and each other and the world around them, and help lead us into a future bright with intentionality and purpose, where we can all marvel freely at the simple beauty of leaves and granite dippers, and where we never fail to help a child who needs us.
I recently ran a Power of Love art contest at my Fine Art America gallery, asking Fine Art America members to “Show us the love – couples, families, friends, children, love in the wild, the tender and unexpected, the subtle and heart warming. ” Did they ever! 121 members entered over 200 pieces of remarkable art in the contest. After a week of voting by members and the general public, three top place finishers emerged and I share them here as love notes of delightful artistic merit!
Our First place winner is Belinda and Barney, a wonderful inter-species portrait of friendship, by John D. Mabry. Mr. Mabry is a “semi-retired … self-taught watercolorist and illustrator” with a history as colorful and creative as his work! You can read his full bio at his website at Fine Art America, and enjoy more of his fantastic art.
Born of Dutch and Albanian descent, Mr Thomas began drawing and painting at age three. Living in western Europe as a teen inspired and taught from the sketchbooks of European masters Michelangelo and Dali, Mr Thomas began working toward a career in fine art, graphic design, illustration, photography and music. Mr Thomas’ studied fine art at Richland College under the direction of artists Tom Motley and Jim Stover, Brookhaven College under the direction of Jerry Hill and at University of North Texas. His future goals are to combine art and music into a complete audio/visual presentation and experience. You can check out his new music CD release ‘Come Away With Me’ at www.ToddLThomas.com
I ascend my half century mark wan and wobbly. I am shaky but upright, convalescing from a cataclysmic cold, one of those bone jarring, chest rattling, viral steam rollings that have traditionally preceded some paradigm shift in my life. This one is no different, and I emerged as if reborn into the bright sunlight of the fresh new Florida spring day that marked the start of my 50th year on earth.
I celebrate my half century on Pi Day, a funky March 14 celebration by math enthusiasts of the number 3.14 (3/14 – get it?), the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. “Pi is an irrational and transcendental number “ explains Pi Day.org, “meaning it will continue infinitely without repeating. “
Irrational and transcendental. That sums up much of my life quite well.
I am, in fact, a Pi-rat, stowed away on the ship that sailed the day before the Ides of March 50 years ago today; a Boomer born into a culture that marks things like Pi Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day, and is probably both better connected and more disconnected than any generation before us. Growing up in Miami in the 70s, I could belt out tropical Jimmy Buffett boozer songs with the best of them, and a Pirate Looks at 40 was a favorite. In looking over the lyrics today, though, I think any similarity between me looking at 50 and Buffett looking at 40 ends at the fun of the alliterative device. I don’t share Buffett’s melodic nostalgia for a time I was born too late to enjoy – and if I did, it wouldn’t be pirate marauding anyway. No, I’m just a Pi-rat. And I like the period into which I was born, a time in history that’s allowed me to age with access to love, health and happiness, to art and literature and to technology that connects me with people and places and ideas that would otherwise have remained out of my reach.
I had briefly considered writing a Manifesto of Middle Age. “These things I will not do,” I started to write. Fifty is, after all, a sobering age. I find myself less prone to personal outrage or offense, but also less inclined to suffer fools – my definition of which seems to have widened in the last few years. But fifty is also a liberating age. I am less willing to indulge unkindness to others, more willing to reach out and lend a hand, more ready to speak my mind, unafraid of looking “silly”.
But Manifestos have an inherent rigidity to them, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 50 years it’s that nothing is carved in stone. Life is fluid and dynamic – irrational and transcendental! Better to head into the next half century with an open mind.
So these things I will try to do: Laugh more, love more, learn more, sing more, be more open to serendipitous opportunities!
This morning, I treated myself to a visit to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs , in the hopes of seeing their famous George Inness, Jr. paintings. A long time UU, I’ve always wanted to see the church and the paintings, but never had an opportunity. Today I made one.
But when I arrived at the beautiful little church, ringed round with moss draped oaks and a blaze of azaelas, the door was locked. The sign said the paintings could be viewed by appointment only. On a lark, I tried the number on the sign and someone answered. I explained I was in the area and had hoped to see the paintings. The docent wasn’t available I was told. That was okay, I said. It’s my birthday and I just wanted to see the paintings. I was invited to come to the back door.
A friendly church member let me in. The minister, in the middle of a meeting, greeted me, and I was led into the church, the lights snapped on and I was encouraged to take my time enjoying the paintings. The congregation member walked away, and there I was, alone in the ancient little chapel, with its warm wooden pews, draped with bright handmade quilts. The George Innes paintings glowed from around the walls.
How often do you get a private sitting with beautiful art? What a gift! And so I sat, and gazed. I gazed from afar. I gazed from up close. I peered at the 100 year old brush strokes, the play of light on the shiny canvass, the dabs of paint that, up close, didn’t seem to be much more than a smudge or blob, but a few steps back evoked a flock of sunlit sheep, an inviting sylvan glade. Mourners grieved as Jesus was laid in a tomb, but brilliant light burned from the painting in hope and promise beyond that temporary sorrow.
The Inness paintings proved an apropos way to celebrate my half century: in quiet reflection, alone with my thoughts, in the warmth of history and the beauty of art, in a welcoming little UU church in Tarpon Springs. A half century is an honor, a gift in itself; to wake up, 50 years to the day after I was born, rich in family and friends, with breath in my lungs, my heart beating, my mind thrumming along.
My birthday gift this year, is one I will cherish as long as I can – it is the gift of being not just alive, but aware and receptive. And so on my birthday, I will share a little gift with you: Michael John Blake ‘s musical interpretation of the number Pi, t0 31 decimals at 157 beats per minute, which happens to be 314 divided by two – in half, or, by 50%.
Fifty is a nice number.
We just painted our living room wall red.
Not “rust” or “terra cotta,” or “rose,” but red – a deep, vibrant, striking, dramatic RED. And we dyed our curtains a wine colored shade to match.
I mention this because we are not, by nature, “red” people, but more “almond” or “ivory” kind of people. Our furniture is wood, our window treatments beige, our walls pale comfortable shades of green or blue, our floor a tan ceramic tile, our carpet some brownish hue. Our house is a yellowish sort of white with terra cotta accents. Our cars are unremarkable shades of green and gold. Our dog is black and tan.
We are – were—a neutral kind of folk.
Somewhere, at some time, my husband and I saw an interior red wall and liked it. For years we talked about painting one of the walls in our living room red. Finally we decided to do it. Our teen aged children equated this with a mid-life crisis.
“You want to do what?” they asked. “Why?”
Because we were tired of living in our box of bland crayons and ready to step outside the rut of our comfort zone to try something new. Because there was a rebate on paint at Home Depot. Because we could.
I know. Painting a wall doesn’t sound like much of a mid life crisis, or an “out of the box” kind of thing; not a wild stepping out as elaborate as skydiving or rock climbing or buying a Maserati. But getting out of your well-fitting little comfort zone, we found, is a great exercise that doesn’t have to be physically demanding or break the bank to be satisfying and life changing.
The kids watched dubiously as we scanned the rows of paint chips at the local home improvement store. They went into giggles suggesting outrageous possibilities like purple and puce. Gradually, we narrowed our choices down and settled on something called “awning red.” As the clerk added the necessary dyes to the base, my husband murmured something about our place looking like a bordello when we were done. When the clerk handed us a can of pink primer, we all stared.
“You’ll need this as your base coat,” he explained. “Or it’ll look like this.” He indicated a streaked, patchy example of blotted red paint on a board next to the counter.
We took the pink primer and the gallon of awning red paint and headed home, our eldest trying hard to keep her eyes from rolling in her head.
It’s hard to do something completely different, something outside the routine of daily living, especially as you get older. And that’s all the more reason we have to. To not try new things, explore new ideas, even those as benign as considering new colors, is to grow staid and placid and stagnant. Living forever in a beige house might be comfortable, but is it really living? If we never change our view, everything always looks the same. Without new perspectives, rooted in old ways, in old ideas, in old habits, we become old.
In that respect, we were carrying a lot more than just a gallon of paint out the door.
The wall became a family project. We dragged all the furniture out into the middle of the room, taped off the baseboards and the adjacent walls, and pulled the dusty artificial greenery off the plant shelves. We cheered and laughed when the first shades of pink rolled across the wall. We took pictures of our pink room and sent them to friends.
Several hours later, we rolled on the red. The effect was a little more sobering. This stuff was *red*! This was serious, decisive and bold.
“Wow,” one of the kids said, as we stepped back to look at the finished first coat. “That’s red.”
Yes, we told him. We knew.
But when the second coat had dried, we all applauded. The effect was phenomenal. The room went from unremarkable to stunning overnight. We rearranged the furniture, added some track lighting and sighed with satisfaction at the final results. My husband and I felt like we’d just gone on vacation, like we’d had a night on the town, like we’d created a masterpiece.
The kids were impressed.
“This looks great,” one said.
“It’s alright,” said our biggest doubter, giving us her strongest seal of approval.
“Way cool,” said our son.
I often catch my husband gazing admiringly at our red living room wall. I stand beside him and we put our arms around each other and feel a sense of shared accomplishment.
Sure, it’s just a room, just some red paint, just a weekend home improvement project that turned out surprisingly good.
But it’s also a tribute to seeing something through, to having an idea and not just talking about it, but doing it. Our kids got to see us step out and try something new, and worked with us while we did it.
We said all along that if we didn’t like, it was only paint and we could redo it. We took the opportunity to explain to them that it’s okay to try things out, with common sense and good humor, and to be objective about the results, but open minded about them, too.
Don’t ever stay in a rut, we told them – in your work, in your life, in your habits of thinking and being and doing. Keep learning, trying new things, exploring new ideas, and sharing them with others to keep your relationships, and your surroundings, fresh and interesting and alive.
It’s amazing what a little can of paint can accomplish.
(This story originally appeared in the St. Petersburg Times in 2005)