Fill Your Canvas
My mother and I on safari this January. Photographs by Cynthia Haynes.
On Friday I re-posted Life is Short. The comments and the emails I’ve had since that original post have lit me on fire in a way I can’t describe, reminding me how deeply we can live when we get intentional about it. It also reminds me of the powerful voice of fear that whispers in all our ears. It’s likely that voice that has kept us from living intentionally and passionately. It’s that voice that says, “Yeah, but what if…?”
Yeah, but what if I get hurt? What will this cost me? What will they think? What if it’s hard and I fail?
Fear is a junk artist. It creates something of our lives that we never intended, molds us into the same mediocre shape as everyone else. And like any artist, it asks What if… with alarming frequency. But what if we didn’t abdicate our role as the artist of our lives? What if we listened to fear’s question and replied in kind: Sure, but what if I never try? What will that cost me? What if I succeed? What if I don’t, but the failure teaches me better lessons than the mediocrity ever could, and it makes me a different person, a stronger person, a person who one day takes flight instead of stumbling?
I don’t know how to put it into words. Each time I try I feel like I’m flailing. But I feel like I need to try, at least once more, to remind myself and anyone that’ll listen, that we are the artists of our own lives and like any art it is messy, and full of questions and uncertainty, but it is an act of intentionality. Who we are, what we do, who we become, is our art. Sure, it can be accidental, the life that looks like an absent-minded doodle, the life that became what it was while the artist, pen in hand, was busy talking on the phone. That’s one choice, or it’s a refusal to choose. Hell, maybe we never knew we had a choice. But it can also be intentional. A fiery act of passionate brush strokes made in wild reds and yellows across the canvas. We have no idea how large that canvas is, we could reach its edges before we ever imagined, but those colours are no less intense for being on a smaller canvas. And when the paint goes awry, we scrape it off and do it again. Or we leave it and let it slide over the edges, more beautiful for its passion and imperfection.
But God help us, born to this canvas and paint, if we do nothing with it, sign our name on its empty off-white surface and hang it on the wall, after a long succession of lookalike days leads us to our graves, content merely not to have made a mess of the canvas. Who will gaze on that unmarked rectangle on the wall, next to the million others, all of them differentiated only by the names scribbled in the corners, and do anything but sigh? Perfectly safe. Tragically wasted.
Like everyone, I am afraid, and probably afraid of so many of the same things. We share the same night terrors, you and I; I’m sure of it. But if fear’s an artist then I’ll learn from it, and when it whispers I’ll lean in and whisper back a reminder. I won’t be stopped by fear of things tangible, real, and undeniable, but trivial next to the fear of going to my grave safe, my canvas unmarked.
Fill your canvas. Let us hear your voice. Whatever the colour on your palette, however misshapen your stretcher bars. Fill it. If it’s been so long since you’ve used your brushes that the bristles are hard and paralyzed then throw them away and paint with your hands. But paint unhindered by your fear and when it’s voice gets loud again, lean in, and paint harder.