The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

Painting, But Not By Numbers

When I was born, and by that I mean the very moment I was born, the canvas that was to become the depiction of my life was blank - totally and completely devoid of any markings. There were no sketchings or drawings on this canvas, there was no paint or watercolors, not even a smudge, there was no outline of what would eventually be painted there - it was a canvas of pure white, new and pristine and ready to receive the brush strokes from the artist’s hand that would eventually become the portrait of my life.

I do not know what the artist had in mind as the end result when the blank canvas accepted the first of many different types of markings. What kinds of markings will be on this canvas anyway? I think it may be a pencil or charcoal sketching. It will also be comprised of acrylic paints, and maybe watercolors. The end result will be comprised of many different types of medium, each carefully selected by the artist to accurately express each moment of my life.

And what about the painting itself? Will it be a painting that I would love to hang in a gallery for the world to see? Will it be something that I could hang in my own home and be proud to show it to my friends and family? Will it become something I’m ashamed to look upon with my own eyes, and be much less willing to share with anyone else? Or will this canvas hold something in between? What will it look like? Will the overall painting make sense or will it be the kind of avant-garde artwork where people of self-proclaimed higher intelligence stand around it and testify as to its brilliance and overwhelming meaning while having no earthly idea what it really represents? That’s actually probably not a bad guess, when you consider my life.

With every action I have taken, with every decision that I make and act upon, with each word that I speak, and each thought that I entertain, another brush stroke from the artist’s hand is added to this canvas. Upon further study of this image, we can see how I carried myself through this life, how my actions or words influenced others, and we can see changes that I've made in myself along the path of this life. My beliefs, my dreams, my desires, my faith… all are right there on that canvas, accurately depicted in whatever medium is chosen by the artist’s perfect knowledge of my life.

My grandfather was a very kind and gentle and wise man. I always knew him to be so even from the time I was a very small boy. He loved and cared for and provided for his wife and two daughters, one of whom is my own mother. He equally loved his five grandchildren, their spouses, and eventually his great grandchildren. After he retired, he found happiness in watching a gentleman on the PBS station in Houston by the name of William (Bill) Alexander, an artist who had a daily painting program.

From the biography of Bill Alexander we learn the following: Bill Alexander loved to paint! He knew early on that there had to be a way to capture an image on canvas before his passion for the image dimmed. He couldn't wait the necessary drying time with traditional oil painting methods and still keep his enthusiasm for the outcome. Hence, the reason for Bill's Wet-On-Wet Technique.

Applying Oil color to a wet canvas is not a new idea. For centuries, talented artist have used the Wet-On-Wet Technique to express their individual style. Claude Monet was one of the better-known artists who painted using the Wet-On-Wet method. In our lifetime, the founder of Alexander Art, William Alexander, developed the products and popularized this method to make it possible for anyone to successfully paint, what is now called, the Alexander Wet-On-Wet Technique.

Traditional methods of oil painting require high level know-how and often take weeks of layering color on a canvas to produce a single painting. The Alexander Wet-On-Wet Technique simplifies oil painting so one can finish a painting in a single day! How? By applying our slow drying base medium "Magic White" to the canvas, one can mix and layer other colors right on the canvas without waiting for layers of paint to dry. The extra thick Alexander oil colors are applied with Alexander brushes and palette knives that are designed to give a rewarding painting experience.

This is how my grandfather learned to paint, late in his life. His enjoyment in those programs and his eagerness to learn to paint became apparent, so he received a beginner’s set of painting supplies for Christmas, some canvases, an easel, paints, brushes and other tools needed for the Alexander method of painting, and he set up shop in his home to begin his short career with his new hobby, and with Bill Alexander as his instructor. He also enjoyed watching Bob Ross paint happy little clouds and such, but it was Bill that really got him started. Over time, my grandfather became quite masterful at painting and his kind and gentle wisdom that I mentioned before is easily seen in each of the paintings we have in our homes even today.

It was also a great joy to me that my grandfather and my wife Kelley would watch the daily programs together, him from his home and her from the back room of our dry cleaning shop or our home, and then they would be on the telephone to one another immediately after the program concluded to discuss in great length what they had just watched. I personally didn't get it, but I didn't really need to. This was something between them and it brought a high level of closeness and happiness to their relationship. I was content to stand on the sidelines and be very happy for the two of them.

Kelley seemed to lose her interest in painting about the same time that she lost her interest in me, but the connection to my grandfather through those television shows remained strong right up until his passing in 1993. That really meant a great deal to him, as I’m sure it did to her. She has one of his paintings in her own home to this day, and I can’t think of a better place for that painting to be. I know that he is happy for it to be with her.

One afternoon, a short time before he died but after Kelley and I were no longer married, I dropped by my grandparent’s home and found my grandfather sitting in a chair in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room where he liked to paint, and he was staring at an empty canvas perched upon the easel. His paints were ready, his other tools were there, but he wasn't painting, just staring. I quietly retreated into the living room and asked my grandmother what was going on. She shrugged her shoulders with exaggerated exasperation and explained to me that this is what he did, but she couldn't understand why someone would do such a thing as stare at a blank canvas. She actually seemed rather perturbed and impatient with this bizarre behavior. She was kind of funny like that.

I eased back into the kitchen and stood behind him for a few moments, and then asked him what he was doing. I’ll never forget his answer. He explained to me that he was searching the canvas for the painting that wanted to be painted there. He was waiting for the images to show themselves to him, and then the rest was easy… just paint what he saw. I watched him for a while and then there was a dawning of sorts on his face, and he seemed to understand at last what it was that was to be painted. He had seen it, and now it was time to paint it, and paint it he did. I don’t remember which of his many beautiful paintings he painted that day, but he saw it right there on the canvas even before he made the first stroke with his brush.

Not all of his paintings turned out the way he saw them. Sometimes he had to make corrections, sometimes he had to white it all out and start all over, and sometimes he just realized that what he was painting wasn't what he set out to paint and made adjustments and alterations to his original vision and created something different, but just as magical and beautiful and awe inspiring.

When I think of the canvas that will ultimately contain the portrait of my life, I think back on what it was like before the first brush stroke was applied, and I wonder what the artist saw as it was gazed upon, when the image of my life manifested itself for the eyes of the painter to see. Was it an image that was pleasing to the eyes? Was this to be a painting that would inspire, and spread cheer and good feelings to all those who gazed upon it? This canvas, with all of its colors and imagery, would be an accurate reflection of my life, all of the good, all of the bad, all of the beauty and every last bit of the ugliness. Would the artist be smiling with each stroke of the brush or is this portrait to become one that the artist really didn't desire to create but knew at the same time that it must be so.

We each have our own canvas, and it started off just as pure and clean as mine was the moment I was born, as unblemished and spotless and full of hope and possibilities and potential as the one in the doorway between my grandfather’s kitchen and dining room while he was staring at it. And while we cannot be the one holding the brushes and other tools, we are influencing the artist with each of our actions, with our behaviors, with the way we conduct ourselves, and even with our faith in the artist.

I take my canvas out every once in a while a take a good hard look at it. It’s unfinished, to be sure, and some spots are a little rough and could use some touch up. I don’t always like what I see, but I never dare to complain about the image, for it is truly an accurate depiction of who and what I am. When I see something in that great painting that is not to my liking, I cannot expect it to be erased or altered, because that would negate the precision of the depiction on this canvas of my life. It would be nice to be able to suggest to the artist to draw more of the good stuff, but let’s hide the unpleasant things over in an obscure corner where they’re less likely to be noticed. In actuality, we can suggest that all day long, but the artist cannot be interested in portraying anything but the true life of the subject being applied to that canvas. The artist can never be convinced to portray us in any way that is even slightly inconsistent with the way we choose to live our lives. It may not always be to our liking, but it’s fair, and right.

So how can I make my painting be one that the artist will enjoy painting? How can anyone? I think the answer lies in looking at the canvas often, studying it with honest eyes, making the changes in life that would be worthy of a change in the portrait, and most of all, in asking the artist what it is that should be painted. It was promised to each of us a long, long time ago that if we will ask the artist what he would like to paint, the image will be shown to us. Isn't that just like my grandfather’s experience with his own paintings? Then once we are shown that image, all we have to do is paint it, or in this case we must live our lives in a manner that will allow the master artist to apply the brush in his hand to our canvas to create the image that was shown to us.

But we can’t just ask and then not look for the image. And we won’t be shown the image unless we demonstrate to the artist that we are willing to make the changes necessary to change the painting. Faith in the artist’s infinite wisdom and enough desire to please the artist to take the appropriate actions are required for us to influence what goes on our canvases, and also what gets covered up by new paint never to be seen again. Yes, I believe that can happen as well. My grandfather did that from time to time, and so will the artist working on our own portraits. All we have to do is ask, and then wait for the image to appear to us, and then live our lives in a way that will create a life portrait of beauty and inspiration.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but as for my painting, I don’t want it to become some forgotten piece of artwork, regarded by the artist as an effort that didn't turn out as he would have liked, collecting dust over in a corner, and facing the wall so no one can see. I don’t want to have to explain to the artist why I lived my life in such a manner that created this unwanted piece of art. I can’t bring myself to look into the saddened eyes of the artist and describe how I didn't care enough to seek out the image that he really wanted to paint, and that I really didn't have enough faith to ask what it was that he wished to put on that canvas.

I don’t want the portrait of my life to be looked upon with disgust or sadness. I wouldn't want it to become as a carnival side show, ugly and disappointing to the eye of the beholder but still drawing viewers to it as they are unable to look away from its hideousness. I surely would see these reactions and want to change the work on the canvas, to grab some paint and change the image myself, make it pretty and delightful to the eyes, or even cover it up with a fresh coat of white paint, but it’s going to be too late then, isn't it?

So as I now look upon this canvas that is a true depiction and representation of my life and the way I live it, I can see some things that need changing. As I ask the artist what it is that should be painted, and ask with real intent, and having enough faith that the artist will show me what is to be painted, all I have to do now is close my eyes, shut out the world for a spell, and wait for the image to appear, just as it appeared to my grandfather as he stared at the blank canvas upon the easel between his kitchen and dining room so many years ago.

Once I can clear away enough of the messy debris from in front of my mind’s eye so as to see what is desired for me, then I will know what to do. I hope that my painting is one that can be proudly and prominently displayed in the artist’s home, just as one of my grandfather’s is proudly and prominently displayed in my home.

I hope to see yours there too… right next to mine.

Until next time…

Front Porch Sittin'

It's a beautiful evening here tonight... good front porch sittin' type evening. I was doing just that a little bit ago after I finished painting the downstairs bedroom. The sun was just going down and I thought I would sit out there instead of watching the conclusion of "Remember The Titans" on ABC Family. I got myself a glass of water and pulled a comfortable chair out there and just sat.

The sky was growing darker by the minute, clouds turning from white to pink and orange to dark blue, now just shadows with an almost purple sky peeking through here and there. Because of the cloud cover, I couldn't really see too many stars tonight. The moon is waxing at about half but I couldn't really see where it was, again because of the clouds. The humidity is up just a little, but not enough to make the air even slightly uncomfortable.

The crickets were chirping from all directions. A dog somewhere far off was barking at nothing in particular, it sounded like. Occasionally I could hear one the cows from across the street mooing very low and soft, as if to let the other cows know that she was turning in for the night. My dog Baxter was laying on the porch next to me and the two cats Gordon and Frankie were content to park themselves on the table next to my chair. Gordon needed the top of his head rubbed and scratched every few minutes.

A few cars went by our house, people on their way home from work or going to the little store just down our road I guess. I didn't get the feeling that any of the occupants of those cars were out for a night on the town. I could be wrong about that, but it's just not likely. Not on a Wednesday night on Highway O in Ava. There's a raccoon that comes up onto the porch late at night and our cats are kind enough to share their cat food with him. I'm not sure how voluntary this act of benevolence truly is, but the cats are still around and I haven't found any dead raccoons as of yet. I tried to be very still and quiet while I was sitting on the porch to see if I could spot ol' dark eyes, but no such luck. Maybe I'll spot him some other night.

I could see the lights on in my next door neighbor’s house across the field that separates us. Fern lives alone, is well into her eighties, still gets on her tractor and mows her lawn. I wonder if she was watching "American Idol" tonight. It surprises me sometimes to find out who watches that show. I start watching the auditions, but lose interest after a few weeks. Sheri's mother watches it with some of her friends. I'm curious if her gatherings are like what I'm planning for my own watching parties when "24" starts up again. Probably not, but it's kind of fun to imagine something like that.

I called Kelly (Sheri's step-mother) this evening from out on the porch to check on her and Sheri's father. Things are going well in Michigan. I didn't talk as long as I would have liked, but she's pretty busy these days and it's an hour later there than here anyway. I tried to call Jessica, but she didn't answer her phone. I tried to call a few other people too, but couldn't get anyone. I hope it's because everyone else was sitting on their front porches too.

I used to sit on our front porch on evenings like this when I was in high school back in Texas. Even then I instinctively understood that I had to remove myself from the frenetic world once in a while and learn to relax enough to enjoy the simplicity and serenity of a cool summer evening. From my front porch in Texas, I could see several transmitter towers a few miles away. They all had a series of red flashing lights that blinked in a seemingly random manner. I would just watch them and it didn't take long for me to memorize the patterns of those flashing lights.

Often, I would be sitting out there after a considerable amount of time in a swimming pool, either in our back yard or over at my friend Rick's house. Man, we put in some serious time in swimming pools when I was in high school. We were mostly in Rick's pool, and that was all right with me because his back yard was always in a state of landscaping and the smell of that bark mulch stuff they use in flower beds combined with the smell of the chlorinated pool water added to the atmosphere of fun-having. To this day those two smells can trigger some pretty powerful memories.

Sitting on the front porch after some time in the pool was a great finish to a great day. There would be a hazy ring around the gas lamp in our front yard, and around the street lights, and even around the moon caused by my time in the swimming pool. That ring signified to me that it had been a pretty good day.

Sometimes I would take a little clock radio out there with me and listen to the hits of the day while I watched those lights. Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" or "Muskrat Love" by The Captain and Tennille. I was dating a girl by the name of Debbie and our song was Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" until we changed it to "Weekend in New England" by Barry Manilow. This was back before rap, before punk and boy bands, and even back before disco. The hardest thing we listened to was Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

How could my life as a youth of fourteen or fifteen seem so complicated and frenzied and convoluted at the time, and yet so simple and carefree in retrospect?

Sometimes, one or both of my sisters would come and join me, but usually not. Once in a while, one of my friends would come over and we'd sit out there and talk about girls, or school, or girls, or music, or what time we were meeting after our parents went to sleep so we could swim the ponds on the golf course and collect golf balls... or girls. Around the neighborhood, sounds of other kids playing and laughing could be heard. We would hear someone's mother calling them in for supper from the next street over. The smells of different dinners being cooked were floating by on the breeze, a whiff of meatloaf one second, and then the aroma of spaghetti as the breeze shifted.

There was something special in those kinds of summer nights on the front porch. I couldn't begin to explain what that special something was, but it was here in Ava on this night.

So tonight, I was sitting on our front porch and thinking about days past sitting on other front porches, listening to the beautiful noises of the crickets and dogs and cows as they perform their nightly symphony, wanting to share the moment with Sheri, and wishing that some of my friends or maybe Rebecca or Jessica or Justin could come over so we could talk about... whatever. It wouldn't matter what we talked about. The conversation would be mostly meandering, would probably be pointless, and would no doubt be forgotten in a day or two.

I need more evenings like this... on my front porch. I plan on spending a little more time out there and a little less time in front of the television this summer. If you get a chance, stop on by and sit a spell... I'll even make a fresh pitcher of lemonade.

As for now, I’m going back on the porch and wait for Sheri to get home from work in about a half hour.

Until next time...

When my number is called

When I was a kid, I used to look forward to Christmas because my 2 sisters and I would always be with our 2 cousins from Dallas. We would eat the huge meal, and open a few presents on Christmas Eve, then it was off to bed where we’d talk to each other through the walls and closed doors, while convincing ourselves that we were trying our hardest to fall asleep so Santa would come. Every year, we would wake up on Christmas morning to find all of the gifts that were left for us during the night.

Invariably, there was always one toy under the tree that was better than all of the other kids toys, one toy that everyone wanted to play with, one toy that was the coolest, or fanciest, or funnest... one toy that eventually would become the subject of much squabbling and bickering. Our parents tried to use such occasions to teach us about sharing. Let someone else play with it for a while. We had other toys after all and we shouldn’t be greedy or selfish. We’ll get our chance to play with it again. Tough lesson for a kid to learn, but one that we carry with us throughout our lives.

My grandfather was like that favorite toy on Christmas morning. Our family had many chances and countless opportunities to enjoy him, and his life, and his passions while he was here on this Earth. In 1993, he died after a lengthy illness, and I came to understand through my own grief that it’s time to share now and we have to let the Angels have their turn with him. I will have another chance to enjoy time with him. As for now however, I have our own other affairs to tend to after all, and life does go on for the rest of us, myself included. I have others that still need my love and attention.

Forget not lest ye be forgotten, but we cannot forsake the loved ones we still have among us.

I hear conversations from time to time (as I'm sure you all have as well) among people discussing how they would like to die, if given a choice. Watch the movie "Grumpy Old Men" and you'll get a small taste of such a discussion. I hadn't really given the subject much thought, until the other day when I read a post from my good friend Ben. You can read it here still swimming with sharks. It's basically about his fear of sharks versus his love of surfing, but it's really well written and you won't be disappointed if you go and read it yourself.

I responded to his post by saying "Jumping into the jaws of "whitey" (Ben's nickname for the great white) wouldn't be my first choice on the "fun things to do" list either, but you know as well as I do that when it's time to go and your number is called, there ain't a whole lot you can do about it... and if it happens while you're doing something that you really love (ahem, surfing), then so much the better."

This really is how I think about the subject at hand, but my response was also a little tongue-in-cheek at the time I wrote it. In the time since however, the thought has stayed with me and I've had time to really think about how I would like to go, if I had any choice in the matter at all.

Dale Earnhardt went doing something he truly loved... racing. Sheri and I were watching that race back in 2001 and were shocked along with the rest of the racing fan community when we learned that he was gone. Many said that he died too young, that he went way before his time, that his death could have been avoided, and other things of that nature, but I wonder.

Amelia Earhart also comes to mind. She also was doing what she loved... in this case, flying.

Indian Larry was a person known in motorcycle circles as much for his made from scratch motorcycles as his antics. He would STAND on his motorcycle at highways speeds. Yes, STAND! Of course, with no helmet. He died, unfortunately, when he fell off his motorcycle doing his famous standing while riding act.

Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) died in a dreadful accident. Although it's ironic that this particular deadly event was in a most unexpected manner compared to the dangerous situations that he placed himself countless times, his young death wasn't completely unexpected. I've seen him make comments on TV that he was completely in control.

There are those who will say that the idea of "At least they died doing something they loved" is ridiculous, that it would be far better to be alive with the people that care about you than to die performing an insignificant, meaningless, dangerous life-taking act.

Some will say the bottom line is that while Dale, Almelia, Indian Larry and Steve arguably made tremendous steps in pushing their fields forward at least in part by their outrageous acts, it makes one wonder was it worth it? Some will ask if they were your loved one, would you rather have them around for life events, good times and bad times, birthdays and holidays ahead, or would you rather know they died doing what they loved? There's a good point in there... if you believe that life is random and that we really have some say as to when our time on Earth is up. Personally, I don't subscribe to that theory.

Do you ever consider someone who has died while really enjoying life to the fullest and think about how lucky they are to go that way, or is it just me? And is it really luck anyway? I can't help but wonder if God is watching and calls some of His children home at a time when they're the happiest. I don't know if that really happens, but I like to think that God does things like that sometimes.

I know people who have been sick and made to endure a period of discomfort at best, and utter pain and agony at worst, before being called home. I don't pretend to know why God chooses to put good people through this, my grandfather for example, but I do know that there is a purpose, even if we are incapable of understanding that reason at this time. I also know other people who have had a friend or family member go through this before passing through the veil.

When my time is up, I don't want it to be after a long and debilitating disease like my grandfather. That seems a little selfish of me to want that, perhaps more than a little, but if that is what God has planned for me, then that's what I will do. Do I really have a choice? I don't want to be in pain any more than anyone else does. When it's time for me to go, I want to go healthy and happy... but I especially wish that for all of my friends and family. Each and every last one of them.

But here's the thing, and there's really no way around this... all of this thinking about when and where and how is really a moot point, because as I said in my response to my friend Ben, when it's time to go and your number is called, there ain't a whole lot you can do about it. We don't get to choose the time. We don't get to decide how. We don't get to determine where we'll be and what we'll be doing. It's not up to us. All we can really do is prepare and try to be ready.

Not to try to sound morbid or anything, but the day will come for all of us, and when it does for me, I hope that I am ready and willing and will hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Matt. 25:21 For that, I will endure anything God has in store for me, and will try not to complain about the manner of the journey.

But if it happens just after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to cap off a particularly satisfying round of golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, then so much the better.

I'm just saying... in case anyone is listening.

Until next time...