A little perspective

It’s been a busy time for milestones. (Do other countries measure life’s achievements in kilometer stones?)

On the bright side, my daughter graduated from elementary school this past week, as seen above, and her school did an excellent job of making an event that was unique and meaningful (and she wants me to add “awesome”) even on such short notice. There’s me on the far right.

On the heavier side, a good friend of mine, who I originally met at my daughter’s school, died suddenly a couple of weeks ago, after a two-month battle with cancer. It was definitely one of those where your world shifts a little bit – or a lot – letting in the reality of mortality in a way it hadn’t before.

Here’s a picture of her I took at the SFMOMA, when she was featured in a giant video collage called Portrait of San Francisco by J.R.

In the first days after she died, I could feel the space where she isn’t anymore following me around wherever I went. Now it’s more like it pops up occasionally, sometimes once or twice a day, sometimes less.

I’ve been through this before, and I know this experience will ebb and fade like some strange, bittersweet tide, but I always think that each time it happens it leaves me a bit permanently changed: bringing me a little closer to what’s of utmost importance to me in this life, and a little less willing to compromise.

And do you remember Harold North? That professor I mentioned in my post about my maintenance plan during covid? I also just heard last week that he died. I know this picture is blurry, but I like it because it’s exactly how he was when I knew him.

He was coming up on 90, and though we had kept in touch, we didn’t talk regularly at this point, but still…it was another empty space at my table. And an important one for me.

I’ve always thought the best way to honor people who have died is to demonstrate what you learned from them, so I’ve been sitting with that a lot these past two weeks, working out what that means this time.

Besides being the mentor who taught me the most about essential day-to-day work habits as an artist, Harold also taught me about perspective. Literally. He was my drawing teacher for my entire freshman year at VCU, my “foundation” year (that’s when you half kill yourself taking four studio classes per semester, on top of academics, which weeds out anyone who isn’t really passionate about doing this work).

I remember at the beginning he had all these brown paper bags set up for us to draw. See if you can guess if I was excited about drawing brown bags…

You are correct: I was not. At all.

But he predicted that by the end, I would love drawing brown paper bags, and he was also correct.

Believe it or not, at 18, I already felt sick of realism (oh, the hubris) and wanted to focus more on expressing myself. But he, and his class, showed me I still had a lot to enjoy learning in the realm of realism. “Enjoy” is an important part of that sentence: I realized it didn’t have to be boring work.

The whole perspective situation did get a little nuts when he took us outside to these places with insane amounts of angles and we had to draw them all correctly, without a ruler, by eye.

Here’s one of mine from that time.

I still remember being annoyed that those wires were a bit curved, because I felt like it messed with it. And yes, we had to draw the lines of all the bricks too! Sheesh.

This was a great lesson in perspective but also a great lesson that drawing something that initially seems insane can be profoundly satisfying.

An interesting thing about perspective is that while it seems like it’s just about learning how to accurately represent the world around you, it’s also about reflecting exactly where you are, your vantage point, and sharing that with the viewer.

My friend Vong, who died, was definitely gifted at that. Being present and authentic were her constant priorities, and she did a pretty exceptional job at embodying them. When someone sees you clearly and also shares themselves with courageous honesty, that’s…well, that’s some of the best this life has to offer, in my opinion.

Coincidentally, this week David Brooks – who I like reading sometimes to get a bit of conservative opinion – had this to say: “If there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it is that we have more to fear from our inhibitions than from our vulnerabilities. More lives are wrecked by the slow and frigid death of emotional closedness than by the short and hot risks of emotional openness.”

I was lucky enough to learn some of this relatively early in life…and then to keep learning it. But I still welcome it every time it comes around. And I feel like both of these people, Vong and Harold, came into my life and challenged me to be as vulnerable as possible, to do the really hard work it takes to truly share my view.

With their deaths, they are also bestowing on me this great gift of a renewed perspective, seeing things from the view of someone who knows they are not in control, who does not know for sure how much time they have left on this earth. Not in the usual abstract way, but in a real way.

I am doing my best to take this opportunity to graduate to the next level of really living according to what matters most. It seems to me we’re all being given this opportunity right now, in different ways.

I hope we take it.