I recently turned 58, and one of my birthday presents was the realization that I only have 7 or 8 more years to officially belong to the workforce. I can continue on after that if I still feel some drive to teach and exhibit my work, so the end doesn’t have to be in sight just yet. But the promise of an upcoming choice made me feel positively lighthearted.
And I had another realization: my professional ambitions have largely gone unfulfilled. I am not a tenured college professor, I’ve made nearly no impact in the world of fine art, and I’ve never earned more than chump change selling my art. If I had known how things would turn out when I was twenty-five I might have chosen to become an accountant or a biological research technician, but I’m happily surprised to say that I’m not bitter about my choices. I’m largely satisfied by the experiences I’ve accumulated as I made my artwork. The sweetness of applying paint to canvas is addictive, and I’ve had 30 plus years to scratch that itch. Teaching has been a trial at times, but helping students still satisfies me.
And it’s good to know that most accounts have been settled, that I’ve gone about as far as I’m going to go. It’s an odd relief to accept that a final sink into oblivion is probably my natural arc. I’ve never been a fan of suspense, of waiting for the moment when my professional fortunes would finally start breaking good. The overwhelming evidence suggests that they never will.
I still remember how I used to torture myself when I was twenty-five about every move I made as an artist, how I questioned and doubted my abilities and potential whenever I finished a painting that didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped. Now I know that it’s just a matter of averages. Like a baseball hitter I’m bound to succeed and fail according to a percentage. I’m happy when I do well but no longer hope that a streak of good work will continue indefinitely. In my personal life I also have realized that I will inevitably screw up from time to time, and be thoughtful and kind other times. I have fewer illusions about my ability to maintain a state of benevolence, and also know that I have a penchant for snarky cynicism. I still feel guilty when I say or do something hurtful, but am aware that there’s another side to the ledger.
It helps of course that I’m married to a woman who accepts who I am. The one blessing that I desperately needed when I was 25 was to find someone who saw me in my entirety and still loved me. It took another couple decades for me to figure out that she hadn’t made a self-destructive mistake by volunteering to live with me. Now I finally can relax in the knowledge that we’ve had a mostly happy marriage and have been good for each other.
The next decade or two may consist of a long downward slide, but at least I’ve gotten some altitude (thanks to Judy) from which to descend. To quote Edith Piaf, “No, I don’t regret anything.”