Taking stock

Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better.

The Woodshed, 11×14, oil on birch, by Carol L. Douglas. Ken DeWaard found a cool place to paint; turns out it was right behind my goddaughter’s house.

Today is my 62nd birthday. I’ve looked forward to this day for a very long time. I qualify to buy a lifetime National Park Pass. I spend a lot of time in the wilds and know this will save me money. Unfortunately, even though our park offices at Acadia are closed right now, there’s a $10 surcharge to buy one on line. I’m a skinflint so I’ll wait.

A birthday is a good time for self-assessment, and I can’t help but compare this to my 42nd birthday. I’d just been through a hellish battle with cancer and was prone to regular bouts of pneumonia. I had it in my head that I was delicate; I probably was. Our kids were ages 11, 11, 7 and 4. They’re fun ages but a tremendous amount of work. Our house looked like it had taken a direct hit in the Blitz. Still, I had great friends, my mother was still alive, and I was happily married (still am, in fact). But much of life at that time was a blur and my biggest memory is being tired.

I can still sled and skate and snowshoe with my grandkids (all in one day).

Autonomy is sometimes earned by outliving our responsibilities. Think of Georgia O’Keeffe blooming after she’d buried her philandering husband, Alfred Stieglitz. Not answering to others is a great liberator. I am finally the boss of my own calendar. On Tuesday, I went out to paint. I stayed until my hands froze, unlike Ken DeWaard, who had to leave to drive a child somewhere. My kids are all old enough to drive themselves. In a few years, they’ll be driving me.

My pal Tommy Faulk once asked me my secret to staying married for 40 years. “Just stay married,” I said. It didn’t seem that difficult to me. My husband and I recently completed personality assessments in a class we’re taking together. Turns out we’re mirror images of each other, and I’m sure that helps. Did we start that way, or did time grow us in opposite, compatible directions?

I’ll celebrate with a brisk walk up Beech Hill. Then maybe I’ll clean my studio.

One of my husband’s overriding characteristics is tenacity. It goes a long way to explaining why we have a good life today. He is tenacious in his job, his responsibilities, and in his affections. To some degree, it’s a trait we share. Nobody could succeed in the arts without dogged persistence.

“I can’t buy you anything for your birthday,” my daughter Laura complained. “Anything you want, you get for yourself.” That’s true, and it’s another advantage of being 62. On the other hand, I don’t need or want much; in fact, I find clutter irritating. Her sister Mary says, “My mother doesn’t want you to buy her anything. She’d rather you came to her house and threw something away.”

I have a lovely family, great friends, a beautiful home, work that fascinates… and a truck. What else could I possibly need?

In a similar vein my friend Barb Whitten offered to bake for my birthday, but I’d already decided to make this ginger cake. I asked her to just help me instead. She shrugged and said sure. At my age, I won’t waste calories on stuff I won’t love.

A year ago, I was packing to leave for Argentina with my pal Jane Chapin, a trip that blew up because of COVID. The past year has been, er, abnormal. But this is the life we’ve been given, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. “May you live in interesting times” may be intended as a curse, but I consider it a blessing.

Unhappy in your art career?

Envy, covetousness, and false expectations are all ways to guarantee a rotten time as an artist.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t been able to paint for weeks. It seems as if my peers have made fantastic strides in that time. I look at their work on Instagram and Facebook and it’s downright depressing to see the clarity, color, and compositions they’ve achieved while I’m lying on the couch with my feet elevated.

I’m competitive; I’ll admit it. It’s not a good trait. I have a dear friend who is capable of shrugging off the worst jurying news. She isn’t focused on the competition, but on her own development as an artist. If I ever grow up, I’d like to be just like her.
As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy leads to anger and covetousness, but it also burns up the envier. Being competitive is a rush when it’s all going our way, but more often, it just makes us miserable.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
Another great way to kill your joy in painting is to tailor your work too closely to a niche a gallerist has identified for you. Yes, lighthouses sell on the coast of Maine, and they’re fascinating to paint. Do you want to spend all your days churning out pictures of them?
Fitting work to the marketplace is wise. Fitting it to anyone else’s expectations is very foolish. What will sell is not just a matter of content; it’s a combination of that and your approach to the content.
If you’re a young person, you probably seek advice from your parents. Neither of mine were entrepreneurs. Their advice, while grounded in love, was the product of their own experiences.
Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. That’s not one, but two, lighthouses.
Even though my father taught me to paint, my parents were hardly enthusiastic about an art career for one of their children. I remember my first complete bust of a show. I’d sold nothing and a pastel fell off the wall, damaging the frame. “Well, you gave it a good try,” my mom sighed, thinking I’d get over the idea of a career in the arts.
This isn’t because families are not supportive; it’s because they believe the lie that it is impossible to prosper in the arts. To a degree, they’re right; it’s a lot easier to make a living as a computer programmer. But the arts are not a one-way ticket to poverty, either.
Owls Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Still, once you decide to follow a career in the arts, you’ve made the decision that money isn’t your paramount value. Why, then, would you let money dictate every small decision you make thereafter? The marketplace is too intelligent to reward this, anyway. Trying to produce work that looks just like someone else’s is a guaranteed path to insignificance.

Happy Christmas

"Rest on the Flight into Egypt," 1879, by Luc-Olivier Merson.

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” 1879, by Luc-Olivier Merson.
I’m taking the week off from writing. While black bears and moose couldn’t stop me, the two tiny tots arriving tomorrow have a way of stopping all progress.
This Christmas season has been one of trial among my friends. That includes a homeless family, a dead son, and a friend with advanced cancer.
“You don’t have to look very far to count your blessings,” my mother would say.  I would in turn wonder why it is only in the face of others’ disasters that we remember to thank God for our own safe-passage. But that’s how our minds work.
I grew up in a home where joy was muffled by grief. Christmas, like no other season, was when the pain came poking through the shroud. My mother checked out by working through the holiday; my father checked out by drinking through it. Parents model a lot of things to their kids, and one of them is how to be happy.
Grief teaches us that happiness is a tissue so fine that it can crumble in our hands. Peace teaches us that this doesn’t matter, that we must learn to accept our moments of joy regardless of our fear.
It’s not enough to just enumerate one’s blessings—we must also live them. Mine are mostly going to be here this week. So rather than work, I’m going to play with babies, cook with my daughters, and even watch TV with them.
Immanuel—God with us—takes many forms. A Merry Christmas to you all.