January 22, 2020

The Art of Life: Recognizing The Gifts of Grief

Above: Artistic inspiration from the amazing Ashley Longshore (thanks a million times over to my talented friend Danielle Krysa for having introduced me to her and to my hubs for the perfect Christmas gift), a pending art endeavor for the oh-so-cool Sketchbook Project (an incredible gift from my friend Elizabeth), champagne, and cake. Always cake!

So, yeah, my last post was a heavy one. Heavy but absolutely essential. Essential for me, sure, but everyone else, too, because we're all going to be here/there eventually. Now, while grief is utterly soul-shattering and hard, messy business, part of the journey in carrying grief is to start recognizing what it gifts you in the process. Lord knows, it can be hard to acknowledge and accept those gifts in some respects because it feels a little like diminishing the loss or, more important, the value of the love/s you've lost. But it also seems pretty reasonable that we wouldn't expect someone to wander endlessly through a desert and then deny themselves the comfort of an oasis if they were to come upon it, am I right? And I fear what would become of life to stay mired perpetually in the pain without trying to find the route back to joy.

In taking care of my parents, I was somehow graced with the ability to recognize the moments along the way where the good happened and I will forever be grateful to the universe for such benevolence. Those moments of gratitude managed to co-exist with the sobbing, the fear, and the pain without one negating the other and that gratitude certainly buoyed me from one agonizing moment to the next. If I could find the gifts granted in the midst of that maelstrom, I know it's possible – and imperative – to find that same offering for happiness in my life after loss.

I've always been something of a people-pleaser. I was an early adopter as a means of survival through school and having watched my mother continuously saddle herself with the "noble" burden of self-sacrifice. Even in the moments where I've known it hasn't served my best interests, kicking the habit of being the proverbial "nice guy" proved largely unshakable. I've oftentimes been the one that most people like... a lot. Funny, nice, creative, talented, such a great hugger... I've gotten more than my fair share of praise from folks throughout the years. What has been infinitely more scarce in my life? Respect. That is a lesson I have failed to learn over and over again despite its detriments. Need 300 cupcakes baked for your fundraiser? Sure! In exchange for "exposure"? You bet! Happy to be of help! Here are your cupcakes! "Thank you! [Gasp! Swoon!] They're gorgeous! Oh, by the way, we forgot to put your information in the event program... sorry!" Or any number of variations of that type of scenario. And I've rarely stood up for myself so as to maintain that stellar reputation for being so fucking nice. Yep. Lather, rinse, repeat. Again. And again. And again. (It's no wonder I'm bald!)

After we had our mom placed in a memory care facility, my sister and I began the process of sifting through her things in preparation for moving my dad out of the family home. We uncovered a lot and threw or gave away a bevy of belongings. In the process, I found old manuscripts for a book my mom wrote when I was back in high school. It was a project we had worked on together but it never went anywhere. Then, as I continued with sorting one day, I came upon a manila envelope in a stack of paper paraphernalia headed for the trash. I opened said envelope and died... DIED. In this package there appeared before me a letter from a well-regarded publishing company in New York. The letter outlined that they had wanted to publish my mom's book, to offer her a sizable advance, and discuss further details with her about marketing and a book tour...!?! She had been offered a publishing deal! And she never told anyone. Anyone! Not me, not her sister, none of us. Here she'd had the brass ring offered to her and she didn't grab it!?! I was dumbstruck then and holding back tears now. I don't know what held her back from following through whether it was fear of failure, fear of success, or what. But, ultimately, she shrank away from a monumental recognition of her own brilliance. And it hurts my heart, not just for her, but because I recognize that same kind of denial in myself. That letter has become a beacon in the night for me not to follow suit and, god dammit, make my life my own. Seize. The. Fucking. Ring! Now, is that easier said than done? Damn right, it is. But what's easier? Living a life serving everyone's needs in exchange for temporary approval and a few pats on the back? Helping to build other's dreams while yours sit on the back burner? Yeah... no.

Here's the thing, being with someone you love as they draw their last breath puts things into sharp motherfucking focus, friends. Lemme tell ya. It slices through the bullshit with the precision of a freshly sharpened machete. When you're in the throes of grief, one's ability to suffer fools diminishes enormously. Doing things you don't want to do? No, thanks. Relationships not serving you? Bye, girl, bye. Life is short, people. And that sounds cliché up until it slaps you squarely across the face. Repeatedly.

Where does this have me at this moment in time? Well, if you've ever watched "Mommie Dearest", one might say I'm in a bit of the "Don't fuck with me fellas!" phase, at present. I mean, maybe not quite that vitriolic but, man, I kinda wish I'd known what this felt like sooner. Because being freed of a lot of the weight of needed acceptance doesn't feel too shabby and it's amazing what one can realize for themselves when their focus shifts back from others and their expectations. And I've come to profoundly realize the extent to which I've been living a life that has been guided by everyone's compass but my own. That's not to put a victim's spin on things – this is no time for useless self pity – as it was my choice to abandon my own sense of navigation. I, finally, can accept that... lesson learned.

As a first step, I finished off 2019 by leaving my job. While I worked for and with really wonderful people and dealt with some lovely clients along the way, taking care of others and their needs had simply become an impossibility. I'd taken care of enough over the last several years. Papa needed a break that extended well beyond a KitKat bar. It was time to step back and deeply consider what I was doing with my life and, moving forward, what I want to do is live a more deeply personal and artistic life. Grief gifted me with that clarity and, more important, the courage to start doing just that.

For the next year or so, I am taking time to focus solely on rebuilding a life in my own vision. I'm working on a number of areas in an effort to lay the foundation but this period will primarily be concentrated on submerging myself into my art practice. In making this move, it's been shocking how many people whom I've known for years have no idea that I'm an artist. Creative? Sure. But, despite having studied art and receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Printmaking, many haven't a clue about my art. But that's what happens when you subjugate who you are for the sake of others and their opinions of you. Again, that's on me.

God love my mom and dad. They were always so, so supportive of me and my myriad creative and entrepreneurial musings. They always praised and encouraged my artistic abilities. However, what they also did was unwittingly reinforce that my success would ultimately need to come through the hands of someone else and not of my own volition. They consistently encouraged me to give my talents to those whom I worked for and, with any luck, my talents would get justly rewarded and they'd deliver unto me the success I sought. I think of when I was a little kid and people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say an artist to which family would say, "Well, you could be an architect!" Our culture consistently perpetuates and reinforces the concept of "the starving artist". When I was in art school, the idea of being a successful artist was cut off at the legs with declarations of becoming a sell out. It's pretty easy to lose sight of yourself when you're consistently dissuaded and you give those who discourage you more value than you give your own heart.

But grief has stripped so many obstacles out of the way: a healthy portion of self-doubt, lack of clarity, overthinking, fear, nonreciprocal and unsupportive relationships, etc. And, really, what amazing gifts to have bestowed upon a broken heart. A break in the clouds to offer hope for sunnier days ahead. Yeah, the clouds are still heavy and there will be rainy days yet to come but to be reminded and reassured that spring will follow even the longest winter is a gift I will accept with deep appreciation. Now, it's not exactly a magic pill for the aforementioned afflictions, and I even recently had a moment of shrinking into myself and feeling small when asked, "So, what are you doing?" But, now, I don't admonish myself for it. Now, I simply recognize it and cheer myself on to do better next time. And, lemme tell ya, that is a refreshing change of pace.

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