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The art of life, and the life of art

When I was young, I bought into the notion that I was not good at art, that we were not good at art, as if it were possible to classify an entire gene pool as bad at any particular thing. But the truth is that I was writing songs and my own version of poetry long before I hit high school. And although I didn’t think of it as such at the time, it was art, even if it was not the still-life-on-canvas type of art we might imagine when we hear the word.

At one point in the late 1980s, when my mother was dying of cancer and I spent long hours on days off keeping her company at home or while chemo dripped slowly into her veins, I began working my way through a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” In the midst of the misery and mystery of terminal illness, I made a happy discovery: I wasn’t half bad at art. I began sketching and stretching to see how far I could go. Not long after, my mother died, those idle hours disappeared, and rather than make art, I got on with the art of making a living. For many years, bridging three decades, I was a writer. Plain and simple. I reveled in that life and that title, and I understood the incredible gift of having a job that is also the thing you love to do most, the thing that feeds your soul. Writing and praying are the two things that do that for me. Prayer is my inhale, writing my exhale.

Fast forward to today, when my work life, which is now far more practical than creative, takes me from dawn to dusk and then some. At any hour of any given day, I am thinking about my day job, even if I am not actually doing my day job. And while that may sound like passion and commitment, it is really a curse, because I allow it to eat up every ounce of my energy and creativity, leaving me feeling depleted and withered. There is no time to write, I say, because I must always do this other work. And so, my writing life has dried up and, along with it, my prayer life, because the two have always been interconnected. Pray, write, inhale, exhale.

I contemplate all of this as I watch graduation photos scroll by on my Facebook feed and as my own children wrap up their school years, inching closer to adulthood and “real” life. I want to urge them to do what they love. Or, even better, do what they must, do the thing that they cannot imagine not doing, even if it is not what they think the world expects. Try, fail, try again, expect to be disappointed and to disappoint, but carry on anyway with the thing that breathes life into your spirit, whether it’s full time or in the spare hours you carve out. And whatever you do, don’t buy into anyone else’s definition of what you are good at, or not.

A few months ago, I signed up for a few semi-private workshops with a local artist. As I dipped the brush into my acrylics, I could hear echoes from my childhood telling me I had no business putting a paintbrush to canvas. I swatted the thoughts away, even as I looked disapprovingly at my mediocre painting, wanting to quit for fear the echo might be right. Instead, I poured on another layer of paint, added a heart, brushed in some wings and felt my lungs fill with air.

Pray, paint, sing, write, inhale, exhale. Do what you love, do what you must because “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6:21)

This column first appeared in the June 8, 2017, issue of Catholic New York

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