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Life's Purpose

Today I walked the trail at Zimmerman Park, a nice hike on top of the rims North of where I live here in Billings, overlooking the city’s West end. It is a place I walk sometimes to think; a meandering hike of about 3 miles. So close to the city, yet you get the sensation you are far away from everything. The hike along the rims and through a rocky landscape is beautiful, with occasional clearings to offer a partial view down below of Billings. Near the turn-around of the trail is a nice rock to sit on, with spectacular views across the Yellowstone valley. Today was a great day, with the trees in fall colors and snow capped mountains visible in the distance, the sky a watercolor of blue and white. I sat on my rock, warm sunshine pouring down, and a cool breeze washing across me. I put my hands together, I bowed my head, I closed my eyes. The calming sound of the wind through the trees and grasses, my mind was perfectly focused.  

Was I praying? I’m not one who believes in a God with whom you dial in on just the right frequency to get your prayers answered. “Please cure Grandpa’s gout”, “please make my lotto numbers hit a jackpot”, “please help me pass this trigonometry test”. No, I never thought worked that way. If what I was doing is called prayer I’m pretty sure it was self directed. But to me it felt more like a centering, a making of a pact with myself to be the person I want to be. I’ve spent a good deal of my last year and a half, after the loss of my wife, trying to figure out what my life was about. Was there even a purpose? Perhaps I still have much to learn, but I do have a sense I am getting closer.

I’ve probably spent a good deal of my life moving from point “a” to point “b” and believing that success was getting to where I was headed. Where I felt I needed to be. And in the end I found that my destination was about where I started, and with so much I missed along the way. Not that I didn’t get somewhere physically. I did. I got better jobs, more responsibility, more approval from my peers, more money, and visited interesting places. But psychologically, I was in the same place I was before I started. I was constantly stressed, constantly angry, constantly mapping my way to the next destination in order to maintain the “high” that reaching a goal “seemed” to generate. The end just felt like the beginning, because the destination was never fully satisfying. Sure, it was satisfying to some degree, but something was missing. My hike along the rims reminded me that happiness lies in paying attention to the next step, wherever that is, not the last. The destination is not the goal. I think the journey is what matters.

So what did I pray for sitting on that rock? How was I trying to find my own center? 

I have decided this is what I want out of life. Love, Family, Friendship, Kindness, Creativity. This, I believe, is my true center. It is not a destination, it is a path. So this is what I prayed for. I prayed to myself that I have the strength to live a life that embraces these core principles.

The ability to love and be loved, to live a loving life. Kind of strange coming from me, but I think that when you strip all the bullshit out of life, love is what’s left. I’m not talking about romantic love, though I’m not excluding it. Now I find that love is a gift to give and get, a gift of such incredible beauty. I’ve lived so long treating it like a precious commodity to be doled out cautiously only to the “deserving.” How foolish. Love, I’ve come to believe and understand, is available in an unlimited quantity, and it truly is the currency of happiness. 

Over these past twenty years I’ve strayed so far from my family. For petty reasons. For selfish reasons. The loss of my wife set me on a new path. I’ve come to realize the importance, the necessity, the blessings of family. Not just my biological family, but my extended family as well. Family has helped me get through this last year and a half, without them I don’t know where I would be now. As my life charts a new course I can’t afford to let their importance fade. I had a chat with someone recently who was in a bad place, and they told me when they were down there was nobody to reach out to for support. Two years ago I might have thought the same thing, but when I truly needed help I was flooded with it. By family. 

I have been blessed with wonderful friends, new and old. Old friends kept touch with me during my darkest hours, new friends held out their hands and guided me to the light when I saw it’s glimmer in that darkness. If you’d have asked me ten years ago the value of friendships in my life, I would have scoffed. “Friends? Who needs them?” But I am finding that friends are as important as family. They are the air we breathe. I am blessed with wonderful friends. 

I am finding that a life of kindness is so much more fulfilling than a life of anger and anxiety. At 66 years old I ask myself “what is the purpose in life, what value do I add to the world?” I am not going to cure cancer, I am not going to save babies falling from balconies, I am not going to solve global hunger or bring about world peace. All I can do is inject a little kindness in this world. It is not always easy, but I want to live the balance of my life in kindness. I want to be kind in every interaction, to every person with whom I cross paths. This is incredibly important to me, I have not lived a life of kindness. My kindness was reserved for the few, Cindy and her family, but otherwise the idea of being kind was not a priority. It is now.

I have always put a high value on creativity, I would like to enjoy a creative life. In my art, in my writing, in my life. Having lived a life of structure and deadlines, this is no easy task. But I am truly at peace when I am immersed in the light of someone's creativity, or when my own creativity brightens my life a little. So a creative life is important to me.

Love, Family, Friends, Kindness, Creativity.

So this is what I will pray for every day. This is how I will attempt to center myself in my life. It is late in my life for this epiphany. But you can teach old dogs new tricks. I have today, I have tomorrow, and I have whatever time I have left to live this life in a manner I choose. I am not there yet, I have a long way to go. But I’m hoping to appreciate each step along the way.


Why make art

So I Googled “what do I do with all this art” and the search yielded no useful results. I suspect this is a common amateur artist question, and probably the reason many people just give up and move on to another hobby. I hoped for some wisdom, some kernel of advice that would suddenly make my closet full of finished paintings a worthy undertaking. Plenty of advice on how to price art, how to sell art, and how to figure out what art to make to sell. But I’ll be honest, much of what I do is not good enough to sell, and at this point in my life I don’t have the energy (or the need) to try to build a brand or a business to market my work. I like to draw, I like to paint. And I was searching for some intrinsic value to this endeavor that takes up a good chunk of my time and my life. I’ll be honest, I am looking for some grand purpose in my life. At 66 years old, retired, alone; I struggled to find meaning and purpose.  

Google did not help me.

The problem for me is that doing things just for the enjoyment of doing them, after the loss of my wife, after a year of retirement, and in the shadow of so many years working, seemed frivolous. I wonder, when does that end? When does personal enjoyment, learning, doing fun things become okay all by themselves without adding any value greater than simply “the doing?” Am I destined to forever question the benefit of leisure? 

Maybe the purpose of life is to strive to become one's best self. Nothing more complicated than that. 

  • The things you look forward to every day.

  • To do the best you can at what you endeavor.

  • To connect with people who matter to you and who you care about.

  • To bring some joy into the world.

  • To bring some joy into your own life.

  • To be better today than you were yesterday.

  • To see the beauty in everything.

So back to the question,  why make art that sits in a closet? 

After much thought I think this is the answer. Because it fits most (if not all) of these categories. I look forward to it every day. It provides me an opportunity to see improvement in something I attempt. Through groups like art associations it has connected me to like minded people. It brings some happiness in my own life. And though my artwork itself probably is not guilty of making anyone else particularly joyful, it’s impact on my own self most likely manifests itself positively in my interactions.  Maybe if I’m happy it will rub off. And it gives me a chance to be a better me.

But the one that really hit me was the last one, seeing beauty in everything. 

Art makes a person look at the world differently. A few months ago a couple of workmen were replacing siding on the upstairs of the house across the street. I could see them through the window of the room I use as a studio. I took a photo and painted them. An absolutely useless painting of two guys on a roof, zero commercial value, but it was fun to do. The point being that art makes you look at things you might otherwise ignore. In this case it was the interesting shadows that cast on the building from the harsh sunlight that inspired me to paint the scene.  

Color is a good example of this. Ask someone, a non-artist, to draw a glass, likely it will be only a colorless outline. It is nothing short of amazing how many different colors can be reflected off the surface of a shiny apple, or refracted through a clear wine glass, or even poured into a shadow streaking bland pavement. The shapes, variations, movement, and emotions of peoples bodies and faces. Now I see it all as beautiful. This enhanced perspective on life, on beauty either natural or manmade, is in itself enough argument for anyone to explore their creativity. Not to mention humility, the effort it takes to recreate in a meaningful way that which God (or a higher power) has seemingly thrown together so casually cannot help but make one feel small in this big world.

To look down a city alley and see the juxtaposition of buildings, dumpsters, and tangled power lines is for me a wondrous sight. Most people would look at that scene and say it was ugly, but peering down that alley I saw something different. 

This enhanced perspective is in itself ample justification to pursue art, even if the results of my labors are not highly marketable, or come close to the beauty of what I see. 

Once I started painting I started seeing everything differently. The way I look at people and buildings and scenes. The shapes, shadows, features made everything more interesting to me. It seems like a small benefit but it is huge. To be able to see beauty where others may avert their gaze is a gift. Not a gift in the form of any special talent or artistic genius, I profess none of that. But a gift of seeing the world more fully. It would be foolish of me to not take advantage of that.

That’s why I try to make art.  

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