A blank page. What countless people wish for.
What I wished for.
I got my wish.
And then I stared into the bright white future and I froze.
As a 42 year-old accounting and finance professional, I found myself divorced, liberated from a dysfunctional marriage, devoid of most of my belongings and starting over with a man who was perfect for me, supporting my aspirations in every way. I fell in love hard and fast when I was least expecting it. My social life, better than it had been in years, made every weekend feel like a vacation. That is not what made me freeze.
As odd as it sounds, as a CPA I didn’t love numbers. I didn’t love financial reporting. But I excelled at analyzing and solving problems, systemic thinking, streamlining procedures and obsessively organizing just about anything. This had made me successful at a lucrative career that I liked but didn’t love. After the divorce, even my career felt like a second chance when I fell into a position with an employer whose mission I fully supported. I felt like an integral part of a team for the first time. That is not what made me freeze.
Fast forward five years and I’m standing in front of my bathroom mirror with first-day-of-school jitters. And I am frozen. That’s right. I’m 47 and it’s my first day of school. I’m taking an all-day-Friday fall semester art class “just for fun” and while applying my makeup mask and trying to make my hair look perfect, I’m thinking of all the reasons I can’t do it. Every excuse from the mundane to the profound is rattling through my not-so-perfect mind: I’m not talented enough; I won’t like it; I have anxiety; I have health issues; I won’t have the energy; I will be judged; I’m too busy at work; I’m too old; I won’t fit in.
Oh wait, what is that one excuse buried amongst all the others? “I will be judged.” That thought (unconscious until now) stops me over and over again from expressing myself as I feel compelled to: through art, photography and writing. I know intuitively that unless I can be completely vulnerable, there is no point in exploring this side of myself because expression of feeling is what the compulsion is all about. That is its sole purpose. I know this and yet the chatter continues behind my perfect makeup and hair, “What if the things I say here are at odds with my “day job”? What will my employer think? Are “artist” and “accountant” mutually exclusive? Will I think it’s good enough; perfect enough? How can I face my supportive boyfriend if I don’t live up to expectations? What will my friends and family think if I fail? ”
And there is it, buried again, “What if I don’t live up to expectations?” The question plays on a continuous loop, approaching a crescendo until I realize, finally, that the only person judging me is me. Everyone else is either rooting for me or so absorbed in their own lives that they don’t care what I’m saying at all. The realization that I am the one who has held myself back all these years is too much to bear. I begin to tear up, threatening my freshly-applied mascara.
But what am I really afraid of? It’s only an art class! I’m doing it “just for fun.” And I’ve done this before on a much larger scale, having earned an associates degree in commercial art 25 years ago from the same place where I’m now about to start a watercolor class …just for fun. And in the time since, I earned my accounting degree at night while working a full-time job, passed the CPA exam on the first try, and exceeded my own expectations time and time again. I confidently advanced through a career that sometimes included conditions under which many people would have crumbled. Never once was I intimidated by other people’s expectations. Why, then, do I find myself frozen in fear at the prospect of an art class?
What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of making the same mistake I made 25 years ago. I’m afraid of self-criticism. I’m afraid of perfectionism and second guessing. I’m afraid that nothing I paint or write will be good enough. I know that in order to make it good enough I have to do the very thing that scares me most: let go. I’m afraid that if I can’t do it “right” this time, I will never do it. And yet I’m afraid that if let the flood gates open, the water will carry me away to some unknown river bank from which I can never return. I’m afraid of my own voice.
I know these fears are not rational but I feel them nonetheless and if I want things to be different this time, I must acknowledge them. After all, this whole experiment revolves around feeling the feelings, not pushing them away.
As I put on my clothes and head out the door to my first day of school, I do something I’ve never done before. I shift my thoughts to all the reasons I CAN do this: I have the talent; I have the passion; I have the money to pay for the class and supplies; I have supportive friends and family; I have enough vacation days for a semester of Fridays off and an employer who will let me use them. But most importantly, I have something to say that can’t be expressed through accounting and finance projects.
I am frozen because I am out of excuses. For the first time in my life I have nothing holding me back. No distractions. I am blessed with a completely blank page. To waste that opportunity would be the ultimate failure. I won’t let it happen.
As I get in my car and turn the key, I begin to ponder one of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, “begin with the end in mind.” In my accounting career this concept is second nature but today I want to avoid it at all costs. I just want to make art and see where it takes me. If I end up stranded on an unknown river bank, so be it.
I arrive at the classroom studio having relived two and a half decades of my life in the few short hours since sunrise, and what I find there is home. I imagine this is what it would feel like if I had moved away from my home town and was now returning for some kind of reunion. As comfortable as it is sitting at this dirty wooden painter’s desk, it is not quite as I remember it. Everything seems smaller. Less significant. But there is an undeniable nostalgia permeating the room and for the second time this morning my eyes begin to well. My first reaction is that I must stop it. Push it away. But I know that if I can let myself feel everything then this time will be different. If I can see this place for what it is and not what I want it to be then this time will be different. It is not a perfect place where I will make perfect art. It’s just a room like any other room where it just so happens I will paint. And like returning home after a lengthy absence, nothing will be the same no matter how hard I try to make it so. And I am thankful for that.
Will I write like Hemingway or make art like Van Gogh? Probably not. But I can write and make art like myself and there is no one else who can do that. Most great artists and writers had one thing in common: they found a niche. Their “Thing” you might call it. I have no idea what my niche is but if I begin with the end in mind I will certainly never find it.
Twenty-five years ago I would have written and rewritten this to the point of nausea and then given up and posted nothing at all. I know I am not alone. Just one look at social media will tell you that everyone wants to show “the best of the best.” And in that effort, everything appears staged and fake. Authenticity dies. In the end I will have likely done more than some people and less than others but the important thing is I tried. I got messy. I cried. I failed, again and again, and I didn’t give up.
At the art store as I pay for my supplies, I ask the girl at the counter, “Have you ever done any watercolor? I’m not sure what I’m getting myself in to.”
“Do you need to be in control?” she replies, “because you can’t control watercolor.”
“Yes,” I say, still feeling the fear, “that is why I chose it.”
“Then you’ll do fine,” she says with a smile.
And I know she is right.