by Doris von Tettenborn of Bleep 50
I turned 50 last year. I still have not recovered. I spent the previous year trying to get used to the concept by changing my work computer password frequently. CRAZY50, LOVELY50, NOWAY50, STUPID50, HAPPY50, CRAPPY50, FRICKIN50.
It didn’t work.
Why is this milestone so painful? I hate to admit it, but after digging through my heart and soul, I didn’t find anything amazing or unique about my angst. I am not afraid of dying – that still feels like it could be light-years away. I’m embarrassed to say it’s more like “Really? I’m 50? Where did all that time go? I’ve been alive for 50 years and I have nothing to show for it”
Oh, my dreams! I had Multicolor, Feature length, Cineplex worthy dreams. I was going to be a missionary, whacking my way through the green, steaming jungles of Borneo with a huge machete, shooing annoying flies away from my disgusting jungle grub. Sleeping in a tent and peeing in a bucket.
I was going to live on an acreage with a cute white English style cottage; pink roses in a row inside the low stone fence. There would be a carefully tended vegetable garden and a loosely tended, wild flower garden; tall fragrant lilacs, more roses, potentilla, bunches of pink alyssum. Kitties would scamper around the honeysuckle bushes.
I was going to be a writer, but not just a writer. I was going to write beautiful, poetic, lyrical inspirational pieces that would magically inspire people, make them laugh and cry and get off the couch to change their lives. I would write for a living and majestically help out struggling writers who wanted to know where I got all my ideas.
Many years ago, I started down that path, wrote a few things, and even submitted a few pieces. I read Julia Cameron’s “Artist’s Way” and faithfully did all the exercises and months of Morning Pages. To my surprise, the message I got was “you need to paint”.
I thought the message was from the Universe. I thought the Universe would never send me that message without the prerequisite talent. I enrolled in a drawing course at Alberta College of Art and Design. I sucked. I enrolled in a water color painting class at Mt Royal College. I sucked. I enrolled in an acrylics course at Mt Royal. I sucked.
I had such fun though. I loved having charcoal grit under my fingernails, paint on my face, the smell of the paint, and the thinners, the joy of buying brushes.
But the paintings were awful, so I quit all the classes, and hid my paintings under the stairs behind the Christmas decorations. I simply could not translate the beautiful, joyous pictures in my head down onto the paper or the canvas or even my butt.
My butt doesn’t even look like I imagined it could. I was going to run (or walk) in marathons. I started the training and three months later I did the 5k CIBC “Run for the Cure”. It was wonderful, even though it was snowing. I was pumped, ecstatic to be a part of that crowd, pink bras, pink hair, and pink shoes. It was more like a party than exercise. Then I got sick for several months. I gave up marathons too.
I have dozens (probably hundreds, but I’m not going to admit that) of books on writing, painting, diet, spirituality. I read them; I don’t “do” them. It’s as if I think if I put the books under my pillow at night, I will eventually wake up thin, rich and beautiful, a bestselling author, accomplished painter and a Zen master to boot.
My youngest son moved out the fall before I turned 50 so I was dealing with the empty nest syndrome as well. He is an energetic, boisterous, and affectionate young man, so I wasn’t surprised that I missed his talks and his hugs. I was, however, shocked at the emptiness of the empty nest. I thought it was going to be easy peasy. It caused me to question who or what I am. Really. Am I a mother, a sister, a gardener, a daughter, a friend, a manager? Who am I if it is not in relation to another human being?
Temper tantrums raged in my head. If I can’t be the best, I won’t do anything at all. I put away the blog, the journals, the brushes, the paints, the shoes, and the pedometer. I wanted to make a living as a writer since I was about eight years old, voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on, including our old World Book encyclopedias. But I’m not good enough, so I won’t do anything at all. Things slowed down, turned gray, my heart rate decreased, my smile faded. Nobody reads my writing, nobody sees my paintings, nobody sees my smile.
Occasionally the pesky Artist Mind pops up – while driving it says “look at what a wonderful painting that dilapidated, crumbling, graying shed slowly sliding into the banks of the brackish pond, wild flowers profuse…”. I slap it back to sleep. Or a fully formed character pops into my head for coffee and a chat, and I push her down the imaginary stairs in my mind.
My youngest son on a visit seemed distressed at how boring and empty I’ve let my life become. After another night out, he bounded into the living room where I was surfing the net on my iPad.
“Mom,” he says as he swoops down for a hug. “That’s the same place I found you yesterday. What are your plans for today? You need a hobby.” He heads to the kitchen to make himself breakfast, pulling out eggs and bacon from the fridge. “Isn’t there anything you like to do?”
I try explaining because everything makes so much damn sense in my head. “I used to think I would be a writer or a painter.”
“Didn’t you take some courses on painting and writing before?”
“Yes,” I tell him, almost embarrassed to continue. “But I’m terrible. All my paintings were terrible so I hid them. And I’ve never been able to show anybody anything I’ve written.”
“So what?” he says. “So what if you aren’t good enough to get rich or even sell anything, or even to show anyone your work. Can’t you write and paint just because you love to write and paint?”
I sat there looking at him, stunned. His words haunt me. Can I really reconcile myself to doing something I love that I’ll never be great at? Is it better to have painted and sucked or never to have painted at all?
My oldest son is artistic but he hasn’t picked up a pencil or brush in years. I bought him a grab bag of art supplies this past Christmas as a “gentle hint”. In the art supply store, my pulse quickened, my eyes were brighter, and colors sparkled, as I picked out paints, brushes, canvases, pencils, pastels, paper. I’m not sure what medium he would prefer, so I buy it all. It’s so much fun; I keep putting more things in my basket.
I wrapped the art supplies, lovingly fondling them. I was petting a fan brush, picturing on the blank canvas in my mind, where I always seem to be able to imagine beautiful, haunting paintings, a crisp fall setting, orange and red trees emblazoned around a calm pond. I sat back on my heels, surprised by the waves of joy washing over me just from fondling the brushes.
Ah, who needs the “gentle hint” here? I realized I may still be FRICKIN50, but I also want to be ALIVE50.
I finished wrapping the art supplies for my son, but I will be going back to the store for myself.
Do you have a Turning 50 tale? Or a Wake Up and Smell the Paints story? Tell us in the comments.