Sometimes the major stories of the day are hard to ignore – not that I try to ignore the news, but I’m not a news junkie either. I just prefer to focus on people and stories close to home.
Yesterday, though, I found myself confronted by two anniversaries – the accident which killed Diana, the Princess of Wales, in Paris 14 years ago, which is significant because she would have turned 50 this year, and the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Articles related to both asked readers to remember what they were doing when they heard the news.
I was painting when the breaking news of Diana’s accident hit the airwaves, working on one of the blue pieces in my Inside/Out series. Back in those days, I still believed my life would be wasted if I didn’t pursue an art career. Either an epiphany or museum fatigue can be credited with planting the seeds which grew into a drive that shaped my life for nearly 10 years.
I was looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” about seven hours after entering the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 and found myself thinking, “I could do that.” At first, I meant, “That’s such a simple piece, anyone could do it.” Then, I felt an internal shift and meant something else altogether. I meant,”O’Keeffe’s life was dedicated to creating art, and mine could be as well – if I were willing to make the commitment.”
I went home, and went to work. After seven years of painting as a hobby, I started treating it like a job, blocking out time to paint around a full-time job and family responsibilities. It paid off. Within two years, I was regularly exhibiting my work, winning awards and selling a few pieces. By the time Diana died, my work was being acquisitioned into museum collections. I was well on my way to realizing my dream.
A few years later, my art career came to a screeching halt. I allowed myself to become distracted by something which really was not my responsibility by someone who persuaded me it was. By the time I realized I had unwittingly sacrificed my dream, it was too late. I was beaten and battered by circumstances beyond my control, and burned out by the fight to protect and preserve what could not – by that point – be saved.
Although I continued to pick up a paint brush from time to time, it was a couple years before I began to paint again, and then only for personal pleasure. Occasionally, I’d still sell a piece, but I didn’t even try to exhibit my work. I just made pretty pictures. I no longer had anything to say.
That loss has haunted me for more than a decade.
I’ve wrestled to make peace in my heart with the individual who was so incredibly influential that she changed the course of my life. I’ve also found a shadow of the dream darkens other endeavors, prevents them from taking root in my life, from growing with hope, blossoming and bearing fruit. They wither. They die.
Lately, I’ve been challenged to look at the losses in my life, the dry bones scattered over the plain. (Yes, those of you who know your Bible, I’m alluding to Ezekiel 37.) But, I’m also being challenged to open myself in a new way to the possibility that loss isn’t the end.
That’s not a new lesson. I am Christian, after all. We believe in not only the death of Christ, but also his resurrection.
Most of us, see this as a metaphor for our own lives as well. Doors open. Doors close. These renewals undergird our faith in God’s loving care.
I know and have experienced all of this in my life. I have determinedly acted with faith, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that God was at work, even when my heart was breaking, and holding tightly to the staff which supported me as I made the journey, holding tightly to the sure knowledge that I was being shaped with love.
But we can’t force healing. When we are wounded by the betrayals in life, by the disappointments and disillusionments, by the tragedies and injustices, we can’t simply move on – no matter how hard we try. We need to mourn. We need to grieve. We need to acknowledge what we have lost.
After Jesus died, Mary Magdalen was consumed by grief. She wept at the tomb, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13).
I do not know. That’s how we feel when we suffer losses. Consumed by unanswered questions. Consumed by unanswerable questions. Consumed by the knowledge that our lives have been irrevocably changed and nothing can change this. No matter how much we believe in God and his love, we feel this way. It’s inescapable.
So, how do we prevent our losses from casting a long shadow over our lives? How do we prevent them from killing new endeavors with their chilling presence?
We must allow them to be transformed. We must realize that loss involves more than one door closing and another opening, a metaphor which suggests our lives can be compartmentalized into little boxes and parts can be safely packed away when an ending occurs. That’s not true.
We must remain whole and must allow the suffering to transmute our lives.
Jesus says to Mary Magdalen when she sees him, “Don’t cling to me.” (John 20:17). In the same way, I must not cling to the old dream. I must not continue to tell myself that if I am not the artist I once dreamed of becoming, I am not an artist. God did not take the gift away.
But first, I must mourn. I must stop hating myself for being so abysmally gullible that I would give up my dream rather than fight to protect it. And I must mourn, because that is the way which leads to healing and transformation.
Do I remember? Yes, I remember, but it’s time to grieve and let go.