A few days ago, my daughter Tara came to me in despair. After watching a video of an experienced Japanese Manga artist, she was convinced she would “never be any good at drawing.” And then she noticed that the artist invited email correspondence. Tara wrote and asked for pointers. The artist kindly responded.
“Mom, she said I’m still new at Manga and that I should just keep working at it. I thought two years was a long time, but I guess it’s not.” A few minutes later, Tara was sitting again at her drawing table, buried in papers and pencils.
How many years does it take to be “good” at something? And who gets to decide when one crosses over the border into that blessed kingdom? Is it enough to attain a sense of personal accomplishment or must something or someone outside ourselves—a good grade or rank, a contest or judge, a mentor or other professional—tell us when we’ve crossed a certain finish line?
A small group of women on my street have chosen a book to read together. Good friends, we meet every Wednesday morning before work for cappuccino and muffins. Nearly everyone in the group enjoys some form of creative pursuit—from knitting to dancing, writing to painting, and so we were intrigued by Molly Peacock’s new book “Paper Garden, An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72” about the widowed Mrs. Delany who, in 1772, picked up a pair of scissors and began to create exquisitely detailed flower mosaics from paper, now housed at the British Museum.
Molly Peacock writes, “Who doesn’t hold out the hope of starting a memorable project at a grand old age? A life’s work is always unfinished and requires creativity till the day a person dies. Even if you’ve managed major accomplishments throughout your life and don’t really need a model for making a mark, you do need one for enriching an ongoing existence.”
Perhaps when I write, I am “enriching my ongoing existence.” My first husband, a Tibetan Buddhist, taught me that being attached to success (perhaps even in marriage?) only leads to suffering. (He was quite aware that this would never be an easy lesson to follow. In fact, in our happier moments—the ones one can’t help but want to grab onto—he used to say he wanted to “book me” for his next life). Now, with more years behind me than ahead of me, I wonder if it’s time to learn to let go of my attachment to whatever ambiguous notion I use to define “success.”
On the other hand, I’ve also worked for the past 18 years for the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing “the faith that conflicts can be resolved nonviolently, that enmity can be transformed into friendship, strife into cooperation, poverty into well-being, and injustice into dignity and participation.” In short, AFSC’s work is focused on the constant struggle to achieve peace and justice. It’s a tall order and though worth striving for, I also need something in my life that feels concrete and palpable; something I alone might be able to accomplish. And so, each day I try to put a few words on paper, like a cairn of rocks growing stone by stone. I do it in hope that by the end of the day, like a hiker who has traversed a stretch of rugged terrain, boots off and drink in hand, I might manage a moment to celebrate my accomplishment. And perhaps (if I’m truly fortunate), a fellow traveler might stop by to tell me that my words triggered a resonance, an unexpected stirring, inside.
For now, writing helps me keep my feet on the ground.
For more information on “Paper Garden, An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72” by Molly Peacock, go to: http://www.peacockpapergarden.com/.
For more information about the American Friends Service Committee, go to: http://www.afsc.org/