Okay, I’m outing myself. I’m two weeks post-op from a surgery that didn’t deliver the outcome the surgeon planned, but also didn’t go as bad as it might have. Why am I sharing that here, though?
“Where words and watercolor soar together” is the tagline for this blog, but for a little while longer, I can’t actually see well enough to write or type or paint or sketch very well at all. My only real challenge, luckily, is patience, because a couple weeks from now I’ll finally have new eyeglasses and will enjoy slightly better eyesight than I’ve had for a couple years. Still monocular, of course, but my right eye will be happier, and hopefully my trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all brain will be less pooped.
So again, why am I sharing this in my blog, rather than keeping it to myself and my handful of loyal friends who get to suffer through my mood swings with me?
It’s because I see now that each one of us, eventually, gets our very own dent.
(And be forewarned: those of you with a hankering for multiple superpowers may get more than one dent.)
Stay with me on this. It’s not that I wish ill on anyone, honestly, but the truth is if you live long enough, you too will experience a challenging situation that you have to face. There’s no saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and walking away.
Think of all the people in your life: how many folks do you know whom you admire because they keep their head above water and carry on, despite some tremendous challenge?
An old singer-songwriter friend of mine, Scott Alarik, told tales between songs at his gigs, often ending with a pearl of wisdom. One of my favorites was, “My father used to say, ‘Son, there are no problems in life, there are only opportunities.’ Once in a while, though, you do run up against an insurmountable opportunity…”
Isn’t that the truth? For me, eyesight has been an insurmountable opportunity for the past 45 years, literally shifting the focus of my entire adult life. I was an art major in college, was diagnosed with an eye disease at 22, and spent a couple decades desperately trying to craft a life where I no longer adored visual art expression. I failed miserably (thank goodness), so I relented, falling in love yet again with sketching and painting and teaching, and even wrote a book about how deeply pleasurable eyesight really is.
I invite you now to think about the people in your life who may have a dent of their own, and ask yourself, does it seem like that dent is a custom fit? No blame here at all, of course, and I don’t think the gods are nasty by nature, but I suspect the universe does enjoy a bit of irony. Isn’t it curious that Beethoven went deaf, not blind? And Georgia O’Keeffe developed macular degeneration later in life, not hearing loss? Leonardo da Vinci must’ve been good at dodging arrows because he had a full-size target on his back if the gods were taking aim at genius!
Here’s the secret no one told you: we each get a dent so that we may become a mentor. Every single one of us.
You’re given a passion, it becomes a bit challenging, and when you persevere (because you can’t imagine not persevering), you start to look like a mentor, and you weren’t even trying.
There’s no getting out of it. If you hang around long enough, someone is going to cross your path who needs exactly what you can teach them from first-hand experience.
Some examples of my past mentors:
* A couple decades ago I got a job working for an organization, VSA arts, that provided creative arts opportunities for people with and without disabilities in integrated settings. There I learned that the creative impulse is inherent in every one of us. That is also where I made peace with being an artist with challenging eyesight.
* That job introduced me to SAORI weaving, which later led me to open my own Saori weaving studio. There I learned to meet people where they are, to listen with my whole heart.
* A few years later, I realized I had to slow down and refocus the trajectory of my life. Problem was, I didn’t know how. Sure enough, I came across a mentor, Michael Nobbs, whom I wrote about in my book.
* And finally, earlier today, a dear friend shared a podcast with me that reinforces the notion that gifts are often found during challenging times. The reliably wonderful podcast is called “On Being” with Krista Tippett. The episode I recommend is the unedited version from January 21st with Katherine May. I dare you to listen to the first 15 minutes without smiling and nodding just a bit.
Here’s the final point: I’ve discovered it was my heart that needed opening, not my eyes.
So many options are still open to me if I can just drop a few assumptions and see things from a different angle. Years ago I heard an interviewer ask Bette Midler what the key was to her endless resilience. Her answer, as I remember it, was, “You only need to know one thing: Plan A always goes away.” That was it. Brilliant.
Here’s some exciting news: dents and gifts, or unexpected trials and mentors, are the inspiration for my next book. After a look at the joy of seeing by sketching, I wanted to look back over my shoulder at the crossroads and fellow travelers in my life, folks I may have raced past at the time, but now see as gentle docents guiding me forward. Many of them had dents, of course, for those folks make the best tour guides. I’ll be creating illustrations for this book as well, and plan to spend the upcoming months (as soon as those eyeglasses arrive!) studying the artistry of Ernest H. Shepard, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, and Charlie Mackesy. Mentors abound, once you embrace your genuine passion.
As this pandemic and subsequent sharp-stick-in-the-bicycle-spokes time continues, I hope you find a bit of unexpected time to ponder now and again. Think for a moment: what dents are all too familiar to you? If you were to slow down long enough to look directly at that dent, what might you see out of the corner of your eye?
Perhaps an unexpected gift? Maybe, you never know…