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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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Painting, Someday

Most of a lifetime ago, when my best friend and I were in junior high, she told my father she was thinking about going to medical school. He was a doctor, and she - as he often said - was the "most capable child'' he had ever met. (That didn't hurt my feelings because he was right: She really was the most talented person I ever knew.)

He told her yes, but she still looked doubtful. "But I'll be 30 years old when I get out of school,'' she said, dismayed.

"You'll be 30 years old anyway,'' my father replied.

My version of that dilemma came a few years later, when I was in college. The Peace Corps was brand new, and like many of my friends, I applied. I got accepted for Morocco and told my parents that I was going to join as soon as I finished school.

The only drawback was that it required a two-year commitment. Two whole years! Now it's an eyeblink, but then it was daunting. Too daunting.

In the end, my best friend didn't choose medical school, after all. Sure enough, she got to be 30 years old anyway.

I told myself I could always join the Peace Corps later and accepted a job at the Minneapolis Tribune instead. I'd been a reporter there for four years when truth suddenly hit me: If I'd gone to Morocco after all, I realized, "I'd have been out of the Peace Corps for two whole years by now!''

The Third Age version of those stories involves the challenges we all put off, waiting for the perfect time to meet them. For me, it was painting. I intended to study art "someday,'' but instead of starting, I just collected art supplies.

Some things I bought new, but I got a lot from local estate sales - good brushes, unopened tubes of oil paint, a portable easel, unused sketchpads, a stack of blank canvases - legacies of people who must have waited too long. That should have been a lesson. Eventually, my basement came to look like an art-supplies store, but I still hadn't painted a stroke. I was waiting until I had the perfect moment, the perfect "someday.''

Then one fall, I took a creativity workshop led by artist and educator Jerry Allan. He handed everyone a timeline of the next decade and asked us to fill in "significant'' events, including the date we planned to start those things we'd been saving for "someday.''

This was on September 22, 2001 - not even two weeks after the Twin Towers fell - and the whole class now knew how quickly people could lose all the somedays of their lives. The room went silent as people bent over their timelines.

I marked a start date for painting that was a sensible five years out, but it looked too distant. I crossed that out and marked a date one year away. It looked wrong, too. And then, with a weird kind of clarity, I knew what to mark - not some date in the future - but now.

The moment I got home, I rummaged through the basement for a brush, some oils and a small canvas, took them outside and did a bad - a very bad - painting of the maple trees changing colors on my block. I also made myself a promise: I would do a little art every day for the next year and see whether I improved.

When the year was up, I was better but not good, so I kept going - sometimes for just a few minutes a day, sometimes an hour or two, trying every medium from charcoal to acrylics and every painting style in Western culture - until keeping my promise became more important than the daily art it produced.

Over time, I think I drew every object in my house. I drew my dogs more times than I can remember. I drew my hands, my shoes, the folds of a red dishtowel, light reflecting off a doorknob, the shadows in raindrops on the kitchen window.

I drew whether I was sick or well, whether I was home or on the road. I practiced perspective by drawing my living-room furniture, and I carried a sketchbook on every trip I took, no matter how exotic, even drawing one night in a farmhouse in the Himalayas in a room so dark I could not see the page.

Finally, on September 22, 2011, I hit the 10-year mark, and it felt like a good place to stop. Now I can draw or paint when I want to, not just because I swore I'd do it every day. I am still no artist, even after all this time, and that's all right. I found out what I needed to know, thanks to Jerry Allan and 9/11, and now when it comes to "somedays,'' that makes me feel as if I'm 10 years ahead.

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