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Photo Credit: Eric Swanson

Photo Credit: Eric Swanson

I was in the studio this morning, working on a commission. The smell of burnt metal, the whine of my grinder, and the bee-like buzz of my MIG welder were familiar and comfortable. The piece isn’t complicated and I settled into the design with little trepidation. I know how to do this. I’ve been doing it for twenty years.

After an hour, pain began to creep up my back. I stretched, drank some water, and tried to ignore it while I continued working — bend, cut, tack, and grind. The piece progressed. So did the pain. A few hours later, when I couldn’t stand up straight and tendrils of white fire shot around my hips and down my legs, I called it quits, wincing against tears.

Some days, I think I’m tough enough to limp through. Others, I know I’m done and it’s just a matter of time before I clean the studio one last time, sell the tools, and admit that my career as a sculptor is over. Right now, I’m straddling the two and reinventing myself.

It’s not easy starting over. I’ve done it a number of times, first with the death of my father, then with the dissolution of my marriage, and again when 9/11 rewrote the order of the world. Each of those moments was explosive, unexpected, and immediately cathartic. Watching the end of my sculpting career is more like watching a chronically ill patient die.

I don’t think any of us escape the obstacles life throws in our paths. Major, life changing events or daily frustrations are either walls or opportunities. Like in art, one small thing can change the feel of the entire canvas, but does it change the inherent meaning or just enhance it?

When I lost my job after 9/11, I was a single mom and the sole support of my three children. I was terrified. There were no other jobs in my market, I didn’t have much of a nest egg, and I didn’t know how I would pay the bills. The circumstance forced me full time into my art. Getting laid off was, in the end, a gift and one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.  I often wonder if, under different circumstances, I would have mustered the courage to try making a living from my art.

Now, sitting with my legs up and too much ibuprofen circulating in my blood, I feel like this injury is another 9/11. As I move from creating in steel to creating on paper, I’m tweaking the canvas of my life. It’s still the same work. I’m just using different tools and like the door that opened when I lost my job, this circumstance will send me down another tangled path.

When I find myself up against a wall, I have to ask myself what I really want. Is it comfort, stability, or security? To make a difference, change a life, or leave a dent? I have to know myself and my goals to overcome the obstacle. One of the ways I do this is by starting a new discipline. Usually, it’s small, achievable, and gives me instant gratification. Here are a few things I’ve done that have helped move me forward when the wall seems inordinately big.

  1. Journal at least one paragraph every day.
  2. Plant a small, manageable garden. One time, it was just lettuce and tomatoes.
  3. Walk a mile a day.
  4. Take one, easy hike a week
  5. Make one special dinner for the family, complete with candles and flowers, once a week.
  6. Sit alone and in silence, with eyes closed, for ten minutes a day and try to think about nothing except counting my breaths.

It always surprises me how the little things can make such a big difference. My new novel came out of the journaling discipline and took over. So, even as I mourn the life I once knew, I am consumed with excitement about where I’m going. Little, tiny steps doing something you really love are often the best ways to discover the next, great thing.

How about you? Have you had to reinvent yourself? What are some things you’ve done to overcome obstacles? Leave a comment and let me know what’s worked for you.