We Burn Brighter Together

Angels with one wing

Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they are always there. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I just returned from our annual week’s stay on Martha’s Vineyard. Since 1997, my family has vacationed together there. Early on, my sister discovered painter Margot Datz lived on the island. She’s illustrated most of Carly Simon’s children’s picture books. I was crazy about her work. I made up my mind to track her down and introduce myself, although it took me a couple of years to work up the courage to call her. My resistance came from having placed  her on a “one who has arrived” pedestal. After finally meeting Margot, her warmth and candor assured me she was not above me. We stood eye to eye. I now call her a friend and a more generous one you’ll never find.

Margot Datz on one of my Vineyard visits

This year when I reconnected with Margot she was frantically finishing paintings for her show in August. True to her nature, she dropped her paintbrushes to bring me to tea at her friend, author/illustrator, Susan Branch‘s home. After reading Susan’s memoir, A Fine Romance, I was dying to meet the woman behind that gorgeous book. Margot was delighted to make that happen.

When we pulled up to Susan’s house, a weird déjà vu came over me. In Susan’s blogs and books, she shares musings and observations of her daily life. They are illustrated to perfection with her watercolors and photographs. As she introduced me to her husband, Joe, I had to restrain myself from saying, “We’ve already met,” because we had, in her writings. From reading her posts, I recognized every charming inch of her house, even her cats. Susan’s life, like her heart, is an open book.

Susan's cat Jack

Susan’s cat Jack

The three of us sat around her kitchen table and sipped Susan’s own private blend of delectable tea. We talked about our lives as artists and other things. All three of us agreed to liking intimate gatherings over parties. No chitchat for us. We are of the soul-connection variety. When I confessed that I had no idea I could write before I began blogging, they tittered in unison, “No one does!” Really? So that means that I’m not alone but share a sort of universal creative process. Hmmm. Knowing that comforted me. I am not an oddball. I am an artist.

Susan Branch in her studio

Susan Branch in her studio

He who lights his candle from mine, receives light without darkening me. ~ Thomas Jefferson

In my youth, I felt quite competitive toward professional creatives who, as I saw it, were living my dream. I was beneath them always grasping for what was out of my reach. I viewed the world as having only so many openings to be filled by people in the arts. If others arrived, that meant there was less of a chance that I could. The only way to find success was to somehow maneuver around them and snatch their light.

Thank goodness for the beneficent women who’ve shown up and taught me different. They’ve encouraged me and believed in me. Unthreatened, they’ve made it their business to help figure out a way for me to market my gifts to the world. Forging a friendship with Margot left me with the awareness that no one makes it alone. Bringing your heart’s desire to fruition is never a solitary act. It hadn’t occurred to me someone would actually allow me to light my candle from there’s. Wouldn’t I be stealing their flame? No, the truth of the matter is together we burn brighter.

Margot’s book, “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids” with it’s sage observations is the perfect gift for any of your sister-friends.

 

Susan's "A Fine Romance" is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

Susan’s “A Fine Romance” is a work of art, part love story, part travel guide. Not to be missed by anyone who yearns to tour England.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

In Art and Life: Perfectionism is the Enemy

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Perfectionism is the enemy in art – and just about everything.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve developed a pattern of procrastination when I begin a new illustration. I circle over my Arche’s hot-pressed watercolor paper like a hawk stuck on repeat. I think about it, plan out my method of approach, resolve to zero in on it and then am interrupted. It’s always something that is a faux “can’t wait” situation. What is this? I’m an artist. Isn’t painting supposed to be my passion? Why am I so easily pulled off course? Next, I berate myself for becoming distracted and vow to start my image first thing…tomorrow.

After about two weeks of this push and pull, I finally force myself to begin. I sit down, grip the pencil tightly and have my eyes inches from the paper to begin the preliminary drawing. It must be perfect. I must be perfect. No wonder I have trouble getting started. I’ve discovered that in pursuing flawlessness I was perfecting the joy and life right out of my art.

“It’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing or else you are always going to procrastinate.” – James Altucher

The more I’ve evolved as a person, the more I’ve embraced my humanity and know many of my character defects are simply survival skills gone awry. Unbeknownst to me, the more I accepted myself, the tighter I gripped my paintbrushes. Losing the enjoyment of my craft, made me wonder what would happen if I painted with abandon. Would it bring back the pleasure and make my artwork come alive? I was ready to experiment. The above piece, I Heart the Moon is the result. I had labored over an earlier version of it in 2012. That one took me six weeks to complete. The new interpretation took two weeks, and l loved painting it. I let the watercolor swirl and land where it wanted to. Unrestricted, filling in the details with colored pencil was no longer drudgery but fun. I felt free. Procrastination didn’t mean I was lazy or a failure. It was just signaling to me that my method wasn’t working.

I Heart the Moon © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 2012 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Next, I decided to post both pictures on Facebook and take a vote to see which illustration my followers preferred. I was happy to know the new rendering was the favorite, but it wasn’t unanimous like I thought it would be. Some still liked the one that I had done in my “being perfect” stage. Did that mean I was wrong about my up-tightness transferring itself to my art? I don’t think so. What it did confirm is there is an audience for every phase of my work, something  I’m particularly grateful for.

“Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” – E.B. White

My art and it’s process are a metaphor for my life. When I pay attention to both, so much is revealed to me. Holding back who I am in any area, not only does a disservice to myself, but to the world too. Dumbing down the “gift of me” is something I learned in childhood. It kept me off the radar of unsafe people. It took years of unraveling before I felt secure enough to risk living uncensored. Letting go, something I resisted, has ended up bringing me great rewards. The truth of who we are is revealed in every spontaneous action we take.  And for me, hiding is no longer an option. I know too much.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

American Hope

God Bless America“Children are hopes” - Novalis

I began work on the above illustration in1999 through the advice of my then agent. It was all over the news at the time, that an immigrant family had named their newborn “America” in hopes of not being deported. The baby’s parents desperately wanted to give their child a better life than the one they had fled. My rep thought it would be a great way to capitalize on the event and draw attention to my art. I am a follower of directions and immediately began work on the illustration. Shortly after that, I parted ways with my rep, realizing we didn’t share the same vision for marketing my work. I didn’t abandon my drawing, though. I finished it knowing the baby wrapped in the flag wasn’t specific to one child but symbolized all of America’s children.

See, there’s the land of America…which you have to defend. But there’s also the idea of America. America is more than just a country, it’s an idea.” – Bono

True, our nation’s physical beauty is vast. And although magnificent, it’s not what makes America, America. My ancestors didn’t leave County Cork, Ireland, during the potato famine to find a more striking landscape. What brought them here were the intangibles. They were under the thumb of English landlords and came to a new world that promised freedom for their families. Freedom meant opportunity and most of all hope. And like their sons and daughters, it must be cherished and protected at all costs.

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”Ronald Reagan

On June 9 a boy from the village of Mokena, Illinois, where I live, was killed in Afghanistan. Private Aaron Toppen was only nineteen and died serving the country he loved. He left behind a mother, sisters, a girlfriend and countless others. With him he took a piece of all our hearts. He was laid to rest in a casket wrapped in stars, stripes and the love of our community. In my mind’s eye, I can see his spirit joining the ranks of a heavenly guard appointed to keep watch over our children. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

Aaron Toppen's  mother adjusts a medal at her son's Turning Blue Ceremony.

Aaron Toppen’s mother adjusts a medal before her son’s Turning Blue Ceremony.

Mokena honors Aaron Toppen

Mokena welcomes Aaron home.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Hope Lives in Books

Bookworm

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. –Marcel Proust

The drawing above is one of my favorites. It illustrates a scene from a children’s book my sister Laura wrote about author, Lillian Hellman. In her memoir, An Unfinished Woman, Lilly tells of how at age eight she would ditch school unnoticed and hideout in a fig tree next to her home. She rigged a pulley rope for her lunch basket, and made a sling to hold her schoolbooks. To keep her dress and shoes neat she hung them on a nail. It would never do to raise suspicion of her whereabouts. The finishing touch was a comfortable pillow to sink into. She did this once or twice a week. It was here that Lilly learned to read and found a refuge from the adults in her life. The fig tree was her sanctuary where she fell into the holy, wonder of the written word.

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” — Madeleine L’Engle

My sister and I loved that anecdote about Lilly. Being avid readers and tree-climbers in our youth, we understood the haven she had created in those branches. It was her way of having power in a world where she was powerless.

As girls books gave us that same kind of comfort. We not only read to be entertained but unknowingly used it to work out the anguish we lived with. Books were one of the bright spots in a bleak childhood. Our mom didn’t have what it took nurture us. She was a product of the societal expectations of the 1950’s. After marrying our father, she quit the job she loved as a newspaper editor when she became pregnant. She had a child every year for the next four years. Frustrated and ill-equipped to run a household, she directed her rage at us. She was a dead ringer for the wicked queen in the copy of Snow White she had given me. It became a favorite story of mine and I absorbed its message. In its pages lived the hope that despite being under the thumb of an evil queen, there was still room for a happy ending.

Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light. –Vera Nazarian

My mom passed away five years ago. Today I look at her with kinder eyes. I’m certain she did the best she could with what she had. Although there were many things she was not, she did share with us her passion for reading. She was generous with books and our house overflowed with them. And despite being trapped in a life of hurt and misunderstanding I think she now  smiles knowing that inside the books she gave us were placed the keys to freedom.

My Dad and Mom walking over the threshold of high expectations on their wedding day.

My Dad and Mom walking over the threshold of high expectations on their wedding day in 1953.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Learning From Maya

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou 1928-2014

“When you learn, teach, when you get, give.” ― Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou passed away peacefully on May 28th. She was a poet, memoirist, performer, educator, activist and mother. In 1982, when she took on a professorship at Wake Forest University, she knew she had come home. To her surprise she discovered she hadn’t become a writer who taught but was now a teacher who wrote. And teach she did. Many of us were introduced to her by Oprah Winfrey. Oprah took joy in sharing the life lessons she learned from her mentor. Today, many of those insights roll off my tongue. Whomever I quote them to invariably thinks I’m brilliant. Of course, I have to confess those wise words didn’t originate with me. I can only accept credit for being smart enough for taking Maya as my own.

We are more alike than we are different” – Maya Angelou

I first read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was twenty. Maya was an artist who painted with words. It was the first time I had read such an honest, intimate account of sexual abuse and the struggles of being black and a woman. I was not black or sexually abused, but I am a woman and knew how it felt to be treated as “less than.” I had an immediate connection to the author. On the surface we were nothing a alike and yet she somehow knew my heart. I learned that as a young girl Maya sat in the balcony of a movie theater, reserved for blacks, waiting to grow up and become rich, beautiful and white. Thirty years later, I sat in a theater waiting to become that same woman. It never happened for either of us but watching Maya embrace her unsung beauty gave me, a white girl uncomfortable in her own skin, permission to do the same.

“Love builds up the broken wall and straightens the crooked path. Love keeps the stars in the firmament and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides. Each of us is created of it and I suspect each of us was created for it.” – Maya Angelou

As an adult, Maya boldly never edited who she was. I admired that but didn’t think it was possible for me to be that way until I read an interview with her in O Magazine.  In it Oprah asked her where her confidence came from. I was expecting Dr. Angelou to say it came from being raised by her stable and loving grandmother.  But no, she explained that it sprang from love. She didn’t mean love in a sentimental or romantic sense. What she was talking about was much bigger than that. She was referring to a state of being so large that it’s unconceivable. Knowing of all the strikes that had been against her, assured me that that kind of love is available to everyone. If bidden and allowed, it will hold anyone’s head high and move through them to fulfill their life’s purpose.

“If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?” – Maya Angelou

I’m grateful Dr. Angelou had the presence of mind to document her life in books and interviews for all of humankind. Even in death, she will continue to teach. I smile when I think of how God brings greatness out of the most unlikely people. Thanks to Maya’s heeding the call, a six-foot-tall, black woman is no longer considered an unlikely candidate for anything. The concept for the above portrait came to me when I realized the word “angel” is in Dr. Angelou’s last name. I dressed her in the garb I imagined her ancestors wore and placed stargazer lilies in her arms. They’re fitting flowers for her to hold because they mean one who is “high-souled” or spiritually evolved. I find hope in knowing that she didn’t start out that way. From a turbulent childhood, she grew into a seeker of truth and then lived what she learned. She followed the yearnings of her soul and became part of a movement that raised our country’s awareness of social injustice. She was an earth-shaker and a mountain-mover. She left none of her gifts unused. And for that, dear Maya, we thank you.

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Stargazer Lily

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Coincidences: We Are Never Alone

I see the moon 300 (1)In 2012, while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, I was shopping for a beach read. A little volume, whose cover wore the night sky, caught my eye. Its title, When God Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life, intrigued me. Learning the author, SQuire Rushnell, lived on the island and had signed the book was all I needed. I purchased one. I began reading it that evening and finished it long before we trekked to the ocean the next morning. According to the author, a godwink is a message of reassurance that comes from above in the form of a coincidence. It’s a signpost in our life to let us know we’re going in the right direction. I yearned to feel God’s presence and in the pages of this book was a refreshing way to do just that.

“Your children first learn who God is by experiencing you.” – Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

It’s been said that we model our perception of the Divine by our relationship with our parents. That certainly was true in my case. To me a loving Creator was only wishful thinking. My family was riddled with alcoholism and the mechanism’s formed to cope with it. My father often told me he loved me but looked the other way when it came to my mother’s harsh treatment and verbal abuse. As for my mom, I can honestly say I never heard her utter the words “I love you” my whole childhood. I couldn’t help but grow up with the unconscious belief that although God may be there for others, he ignored me and my prayers. There seemed to be an impenetrable wall between us. Reading When God Winks gave me hope that there is a Higher Power who loves his children (me included) unconditionally. The notion that he puts serendipitous events on our paths to lift our spirits was a lovely concept to me. I liked this way of thinking and immediately began watching for winks. I had no trouble finding them again and again.

“Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.”- Carl Jung

I’ve come to the awareness that my life has been filled with godwinks all along. I missed them because I didn’t know they were there. When reviewing important events of the past, I can see them glimmering throughout. One such scenario took place in 1994. I had a strong inner nudge to draw a portrait of Chelsea Clinton and send it her mother, who was first lady at the time. Mrs. Clinton had been getting such bad press about health care reform, I felt compelled to encourage her. I knew she was partial to angels and wore an angel pin on her shoulder. I had the inspiration to paint her daughter as an angel and send it to her. I’m not in the habit of giving my art away, but it was something I felt a strong call to do. For a woman who had little faith in herself, it was a real leap.

Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton Portrait

I didn’t realize it then but I now see that godwinks were there to give me hope and point me in the right direction the whole way through.  After I decided to trust my intuition, I came across a wonderful quote to include on the illustration (wink #1). Next, I stumbled upon the perfect photograph of Chelsea’s face to base the portrait on (wink #2). My daughter was close to Chelsea’s age and I was able to photograph her body to work from to create the image (wink #3). I was going to ship the piece to Mrs. Clinton in care of the White House until I stumbled upon the more direct route of sending it to her address at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (wink #4). When the drawing was completed, I wrapped it up and shipped it off to the First Lady. In less than a week, I received the most lovely thank-you note from her. In it she told me I had captured her daughter’s spirit (wink #5). What a confirmation that I should trust my own instincts! Reflecting back, it seems incredulous that I didn’t notice how miraculously everything had fallen into place. But you can’t perceive what you don’t believe exists.

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Letter from Hillary Rodham Clinton

Godwinks is now a household term in my family. Watching for them has made all of our faith bloom and grow. It’s almost a different form of gratitude. Of course, at times, I still slip back into my old thinking patterns. When I pray for assistance, I’m always given a nod from God that lets me know he hasn’t abandoned me. I’ve found the evidence of his love is everywhere if we only shift our focus and look.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

How can I be Plus Size and Invisible?

I am a plus-sized woman. There is no hiding that. Although being large was the bane of my youth, at 58 I’ve come to terms with what is. I’ve spent a large portion of my life on a diet merry-go-round that only made me dizzy. It was a cycle of being horrified by what I saw in the mirror, restricting my eating and then slowly going back to my old ways and previous weight.

Sometimes I wonder, “What if there is no changing my body?” For years I’ve tried to shrink myself to a more acceptable size without any long term success. Could I be predisposed to be this way? That seems like a real possibility when I look at my family tree. I come from a long line of big women. I recently came across a photograph of my great-grandmother in the 1930’s. Her life was filled with hard physical labor and unprocessed food. She lived today’s formula for being slender. Yet despite all of that her body was fat, and I’m built just like her.

My great-grandmother with my mom and uncle.

My great-grandmother with my mom and uncle.

“And I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me. My feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m loving what I see.” ~India Arie, Video

Perhaps being ample sized isn’t optimal, but I’ve come to the conclusion that just may be who I am. I’m in the process of doing an, “I love myself” experiment. Instead of looking in the mirror in disgust, I bless my body. I wear the beauty of my ancestors. I affirm that my physicality is the perfect vehicle to manifest my life’s purpose. Not only do I have the soul of an artist, I have the fine motor skills to transcribe my vision onto paper. My eyes and brain work together perfectly to mix the subtle colors I envision for my paintings. My body is healthy and energetic. I have good skin and pretty eyes. Most of all, I’m grateful that it had the miraculous ability to grow and give birth to my three children.

So far my self-love experiment has been very healing. I’ve found the voice in my head is much more cruel than the outside world – for the most part. The other day while having lunch with a friend, I felt a sting from her words that I’ve experienced from others before. Lizzie (not her real name) revealed to me that she was worried about her daughter. She was afraid that her little girl would grow up with Lizzie’s sister’s metabolism and not hers. Lizzie, an effortless size four was horrified at the thought of her daughter ever having bigger hips and a curvier derrière. I assured her she had nothing to worry about and our discussion moved on to other matters.

When I returned home, I couldn’t shake my feelings of low self-worth. When Lizzy confided in me, she totally disregarded that I embody the destiny she dreads for her daughter. Instead of speaking up on my own behalf, I  pushed down my outrage. No wonder I felt bad. I couldn’t understand Lizzie’s unawareness of how her concerns would affect me. She was so considerate in other areas of her life. How come she couldn’t see the body I live in is what she considers a fate worse than death? In my silence, I had sold myself out.

“I have no right, by anything I do or say, to demean a human being in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him; it is what he thinks of himself. To undermine a man’s self-respect is a sin.” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I remember watching the The View when it first aired. Joy Behar ridiculed Ted Kennedy’s paunch by showing a picture of him boating shirtless. Plus-sized Star Jones sat next to Joy as she got her laughs at the then senator’s expense. I couldn’t believe it. How could Joy not comprehend that the cruel humor she poured over Ted Kennedy washed over Star too? I left a message about Ms. Behar’s insensitivity on the telephone hotline The View had set up at the time. To the show’s credit, I never heard any of their hosts engage in that kind of crassness again.

Looking back, I wish I had had the clarity to stand up to Lizzie’s remarks that diminished me. This kind of of prejudice is oh-so-subtle but still hurtful. It is part of the overall marginalization of women of size. If it happens again, I will shed some light on how her lack of consideration makes me feel. I am no longer bound to a body standard that is eerily close to a Barbie doll. I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. Being plus-sized does not mean I’m invisible or, deaf either, for that matter.

My daughter and plus-sized me.

My daughter and plus-size me.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

Grandchildren: A Shift in Focus

Joy on EarthMy first grandchild, Cameron John Shanahan, was born on April 8, 2014. I was looking forward to his arrival from the moment my son, Brian, and his wife, Pam, told me they were expecting. In fact, I jumped up and down and whooped like I had won the lottery. Now he is finally here, and I am a grandma. His birth has brought out unencumbered tenderness in me. Gone is the overwhelming sense of responsibility I felt with the birth of each of my children. It’s not my job to make sure he moves through the world safely. I can relax because Cam is in the most excellent of hands, knowing that leaves me free to just love him.

Brian, Pam and Cam on Easter Sunday 2014

Brian, Pam and Cam on Easter Sunday 2014

Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do. Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children. ~Alex Haley

I had two marvelous grandmothers. Grandma Fahrner and Grandma Ragen were a stable presence in my life. They were interested in me and loved me for who I was. They were like the fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty who used her magic to tone down the curse a wicked fairy had put on the little princess. My grandmas didn’t have the power to break the spell of being raised by maladjusted parents, but they could soften the blow. And soften the blow they did. Without them, I don’t know how I would have survived my upbringing. With the dad and mom Cam is blessed with, he doesn’t need me to be his port in the storm. What I will give him is my time. I will answer his questions and look into his eyes when he talks to me. I will nurture his creativity and read to him. I will share with him what the world was like when I grew up and connect him to his ancestors. I will believe in his dreams. He will know I love him by the way my eyes light up when he enters the room.

My Grandma Fahrner, my brother Steve, me, and my Grandma Ragen on Mother's Day, 1958

My Grandma Fahrner, my brother Steve, me, and my Grandma Ragen on Mother’s Day, 1958

In Arianna Huffington’s wonderful book Thrive she writes of how Americans stress and obsess over the trivial things in their lives. She believes most people will only shift their focus to what is truly important when a crisis hits. A death or serious illness usually does it. I have decided I don’t need a catastrophe to let go of the inessential and pay attention to what really matters. I have a grandson.

My Grandson, Cameron John

My Grandson, Cameron John

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

The Big Picture: Perspective is Everything

“I’m like the painter with his nose to the canvas, fussing over details. Gazing from a distance, the reader sees the big picture.” – Author Steven Saylor

My sister Ann passed away, without warning, on the morning of October 9, 2008. An undiagnosed heart condition, hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, took her life. How could that be? She was only 51! She all but sparkled she was so alive. Her death didn’t seem possible. Being thoroughly devoted to each other, I had no idea how I was going to live without her.

For the first ten years of our marriages, I had the luxury of Ann only living a mile from me. We got to raise our children together and see each other whenever we liked. In 1998, her husband took a job three hours south of where we lived. I felt the sting of our separation even before she moved. When what I dreaded came to pass, I was shocked that our relationship only deepened. Even though we no longer got to be with each other in person, thanks to cell phones, we were connected more than ever.

Ann and I had gotten into the habit of speaking to each other every morning and at times throughout the day, being detached from her was unfathomable to me. What would I do without her to run every aspect of my life by? There was such a hole with her gone. The minute I learned she had departed, I heard a voice say, “It’s time to stretch.” My soul knew it was a chance for me to face the world standing on my own two feet. The comfort of leaning on Ann had run its course.

After the shock of her passing lifted, the grief settled in. I went from deep sadness to despair. Worse than my loss was witnessing what her husband and children were going through. Their broken-heartedness pulled me even further into misery.

As the months moved on, slowly, slowly, I began to heal. I still remember the first day that went by where I wasn’t consumed with sorrow. As I lay in bed that night, a little pang of guilt pulled me back. Did my happiness mean I was being disloyal?  And what about Ann’s children? I began to feel what I imagined their anguish to be. I was sinking.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances.”- William Shakespeare

And then she came to me. Ann was in the form of an angel with wings. She reached down, lifted me by the hand and deposited me on a cloud next to her. If my body didn’t literally feel the whoosh of being pulled upward, I would have thought I was dreaming. As we sat, she put her arm around me and pointed down to Earth. She told me that whenever I felt myself slipping to look at the big picture. I knew exactly what she meant. I shouldn’t let myself become absorbed in the drama on our planet. In the big picture, nothing had changed. She had never left any of her loved ones’ sides. It was time for her to move on, but nothing could keep us from her love. She indicated to me that life would be so much easier if I wore my trials like a loose garment and didn’t allow myself to become engrossed in them. When looked at from a higher perspective, the sufferings we go through don’t seem so overwhelming. Ann’s insight was a gift from one who knew me so well. It proved to be the missing link in the healing of my many of struggles. That experience marked the beginning of my acceptance of what I had considered a loss. Sometimes I still ache for the physicality of Ann being with me, but I no longer resist these feelings. I simply let them move through me. They are part of being human. When I get to the other side of them, I realize nothing has changed…..not really.

My cousin's Marianne and Kate modeled to help bring my vision to life.

My cousin’s Marianne and Kate modeled to help bring my vision to life.

I love hearing from you! I’ve heard so many comforting stories about people who have died and reached out to those they left behind. A great book on the subject is Hello from Heaven. Have any of you had an experience with someone you love who has passed away?

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

 

 

 

 

Over the Rainbow: Your Life’s Purpose

An illustration I did for a notecard as a gift for Maria Shriver's 50th  birthday.

This illustration graced notecards I did as a gift for Maria Shriver’s 50th birthday.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

Everyone’s life has a calling. We all come here to fulfill a sacred duty. I am an artist. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been creating things. My aunt recalls me, at age three, playing with a handkerchief for hours. I would fold and form it into different props for my land of make-believe. Although I came here with special talents, I now know they’re not the reason for my existence. My artistic ability is woven through the fabric of my soul to support and help manifest why I was born.

What is a calling? It is different from your talents? Your gifts, personality, and brain power are all part of the intricacies of your soul, set in place to help support your life’s purpose. In the Bhagavad Gita this purpose is referred to as your dharma. It is our soul’s mission, the reason we were born. How do we find our vocation? One thing is certain, although clues may come from the outside, the concrete knowing always come from within.

For a good portion of my life, I assumed my mission was to be an artist. Didn’t the skills I brought to Earth clearly indicate that? But after reading Stephen Cope’s illuminating book, The Great Work of Your Life, I discovered that my gifts are only a finger pointing to my dharma.  He explains, “If you bring forth what is within you it will save you. If you do not it will destroy you.” Reading that set me on the path of digging deeper to uncover what I am here to fulfill. I knew I had a talent for capturing the spirit of children in my drawings and paintings.  I love the whole process. But upon further examination, I came to the conclusion that this just scratches the surface of my true lifework.

A portrait where I was able to capture my subject’s beauty and essence. Clare is a favorite  painting of mine.

A portrait where I was able to capture my subject’s beauty and essence. “Clare” is a favorite painting of mine.

In an email from singer/song writer Rodney Crowell, I found my answer, “I notice things in your work I love about Renoir’s. Seeing soft beauty in the commonplace. Heaven on Earth if you will.” That’s it! I see the allure in the ordinary and reflect it back to my subjects and the world. I do that in my writing, too. We are all here on earth with the longing to be validated. There is not a heart that doesn’t yearn to be seen and loved for itself. In a society saturated with celebrity glitz and glam, my creations celebrate the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Does everyone have a calling that includes an obvious talent? I don’t think so. My sister Ann owned a cleaning business. And no, she didn’t have a passion for cleaning. Over the years, she discovered what filled her cup was to be of service. Explaining the new found contentment in her job she told me, “I clean toilets for a living. I had to figure out a way to find meaning in that. I realized my cleaning and organizational skills were a gift to my clients. When I began focusing on helping others, everything flipped.” Ann had claimed and named her dharma. After her epiphany she couldn’t satisfy all the requests she garnered for her services.

Not in Kansas Anymore

We are all put on this planet with a mission to actualize. I suspect every heart is heavy that has a song in it that’s left unsung. With all of our culture’s frenzy it is easy to overlook our unique gifts and what they were given to help us manifest. Once we answer the call of our life’s purpose, there is no going back. We feel more alive. We go from the mundane to Technicolor. Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, we realize that we no longer live in the grey of Kansas but have landed in a world of living color. And along with challenges, we discover a place of truth and beauty.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com