I’ve been reading The Artist’s Way this past month. This is the sort of book, marketed as “A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self,” that I’d usually avoid. Really, who has the time? Its author, Julia Cameron, claims to have helped countless “blocked artists” discover “a spiritual path to higher creativity.” I bought this book back when I was a legitimate artist, having just completed a photography degree in New York City — but apparently it didn’t work for me back then, because I made it to the third chapter and then quit photography.
I’m not sure why I decided to pick up this book again, since I wouldn’t describe myself as an “artist” — unless by “artist” you mean “someone who started writing a blog about her kids and then got tired of writing about her kids.” Nor would I describe myself as “blocked,” although I’m sure there are some who WISH I’d develop a little writer’s block.
I guess I just hate to have a book in my house that’s partially read. And it’s turned out to be pretty good. My FAVORITE part is when Cameron recommends taking yourself out on a weekly “artist date,” where you go off alone to do something fun and restorative. That seems like a good idea for anybody, artist or no. So, the “artist date” was on my mind when Erick took out all three girls on a recent Saturday morning. I figured I’d give it a try; beats cleaning the house.
I decided to take a hike. I love walking, and looking, and thinking. When the girls are around, I may be able to walk short distances, but I have to watch THEM instead of the scenery, and there’s always too much chatter for me to hear myself think. A nice, quiet hike seemed just the thing for my first artist date.
The problem is, hiking by myself makes me a little nervous; I’m still too much of a city girl. I worry about things like getting killed. And where we live, the options for hiking tend towards two opposing but potentially dangerous scenarios: rugged wilderness trails, or the narrow shoulders of winding roads along which cars drive waaaay too quickly.
But there is one exception: the TAM. TAM stands for “Trail Around Middlebury,” and is a 16-mile loop around Middlebury through conserved land owned by the Middlebury Area Land Trust. I opted to walk a small section of the trail that starts at the Middlebury College golf course and ends close to town. The assurance that retirees with golf clubs would be within shouting distance was enough to make me feel passably secure.
It was a beautiful, sunny late summer day. The section of trail that I walked is mostly wooded, with a few open fields between the trees. It felt secluded and quiet — I passed no more than five other people along the way. Then, in one dappled green stretch of woods, I looked up and spotted this tree:
I know the photo isn’t great — I snapped it with my iPod — but LOOK at that crazy tree! I can’t see the leaves well enough to tell what kind of tree it is, but I think it’s an oak. Oak trees — the ones in my yard, at least — usually grow up straight and strong and tall. Certainly all the trees around this one were growing straight, or else I wouldn’t have noticed it. Something happened to this tree, something was strange enough about its environment that its trunk veered off in one direction, and then abruptly changed course and doubled back upon itself. From the looks of it, this may have happened several times.
And yet, the tree survived. It’s healthy, thriving there in the woods. And isn’t it beautiful? Much more interesting than all the straight arrow trees around it.
There are a couple of points in life — usually around age 18 and 21 — when people make Big Decisions. Decisions about school, work, life partners. We tend to invest these decisions with a sense of great importance; we worry that we’ll make the wrong choice, and then we worry that we did make the wrong choice. By “we,” of course, I mean “me.” I went to college with no idea where to focus my attention, then bopped along through a series of decisions: graduate degree in education, teaching job, graduate degree in studio art, photography freelancer, nonprofit manager, mother. I love what I’m doing right now the best, but whatever you call this life I’ve cobbled together, you can’t call it “employment.” And that’s what tends to matter on paper and at cocktail parties.
When I saw that crazy tree, though, it reminded me of my life — and not just my life, but the lives of so many people I know and love.
So, I decided that when my girls reach the age of Big Decision Making, I’m going to show them the picture of this crazy tree — or take them to see it in person. And I’ll say something like this:
You’re worried about making the wrong choices, and your choices DO matter, but you don’t need to worry so much. Check out this crazy tree. This tree didn’t worry, it just grew towards where the most light was at each stage of its life. It’s okay if you change your mind later, or if you look back and feel like you were all over the place. As long as you’re growing towards the light at each stage of your life, you’ll be okay. And when you stand back to look, it’ll be beautiful.