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?

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.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

www.sueshanahan.com

I Once Knew a Girl who Gave Up Thinking…

Metamorphosis

The mind is a complete idiot. – Dr. David R. Hawkins M.D., PhD.

I have a young friend who never ceases to amaze me. When Andrea and I first met, I took her soft-spokeness as mousy. Inside and out, she seemed pretty ordinary. It didn’t take long for me to realize behind her quiet demeanor, was a girl of fire and spunk.

When Lent rolled around a few years back, Andrea’s priest told the congregation it wasn’t always necessary to give something up as a sacrifice. When preparing for Easter, he suggested that instead of depravation, Lent could be observed by taking on a practice that would be a blessing to the observer. Gathering with a group to study scripture or meditating each morning could also be a way to revere this high, holy time. And that’s when it hit Andrea, she would give up thinking for Lent.

When she first told me her idea I laughed. Give up thinking for Lent? How could that be possible? Don’t we need our thoughts to help move us through life? No, what Andrea was talking about was obsessive thinking. You know, the kind of thinking that gives you no rest. The kind of thinking that analyzes and tries to control every aspect of your life.

The last seven years had been rough for her. Pregnant at 17, she married her son’s father only to divorce him two years later because of a mental illness and drug abuse. After that, Andrea felt she had no choice but to move back home to her parents’ with their son Adrian. Living with a critical and condescending mother was less than ideal, but she needed help with her little boy. She saw no other way to keep her full-time job while working on a college degree.

Fear loomed large in Andrea’s life. She felt stuck and wondered if she would ever be able to give Adrian the life he deserved. Her ex-husband’s instability constantly disappointed them. Recently, he had checked himself into rehab, yet again, but she didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome. The gears in her brain turned around the clock with “what ifs.”

It was during this time the brilliant idea to give up thinking for Lent came to Andrea. She quickly learned she had to pay constant attention to her thoughts if she were going to be successful. In particular, her drive to work always signaled the wheels of her obsession to begin rolling. An hour later, when she pulled into the parking lot, she couldn’t even remember the route she took, her mind was so consumed. To unhook she began practicing being present by noticing her surroundings.

Andrea quickly discovered there was so much beauty in her daily drive she had never been aware of. It was spring. The flowers were blooming and everything was fresh and new. And the birds! She had never noticed the riot of their chirping. She began seeing hawks everywhere. She couldn’t believe she’d been so locked inside her mind that their majesty had gone unnoticed.

The more Andrea let go by staying in the now, the more she saw that everything she was fixated on resolved itself on its own. Maybe by relaxing her grip she was actually allowing God to work things out more quickly.

All will be revealed – not all will be figured out.- Mary Karr

I too have been held hostage by my brain. As of late, not knowing where my career as an author/illustrator is going has been weighing heavy on my mind. The publishing industry was turned upside down by the 2008 financial collapse and left me on the outside looking in. With the invention of electronic readers, the industry is now reworking itself in a way that makes sense with today’s technology. That means it’s harder than ever to get an editor to even glance at a submission. What to do? What to do? Should I continue to search for an agent, publisher or self-publish?

Lucky for me Lent is here and reminded me of Andrea and her bright idea. I took a cue from her and consciously gave up my need to analyze and force a solution. The moment I surrendered my thinking, peace washed over me and was immediately followed by the ding of an an email in my inbox. It was a note from a film company that wants to make a short documentary about my art. How cool is that? And with my mind out of the way, who knows what other miracles will be brought forth in my life. That Andrea is a genius.

Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

www.sueshanahan.com

Sojourner’s Truth

Angel of the North Star“Every time God’s children have thrown away fear in the pursuit of honesty, trying to communicate, understood or not – miracles have happened.” - Duke Ellington

Whenever I think about the life of Sojourner Truth I’m inspired and amazed. She was a steadfast woman who spoke what was in her heart, no matter what. She knew she was disadvantaged but also knew she had a power greater than herself at her fingertips. She trusted in that power and accessed it to help spread a message that was the beginning of turning our country (as she would say) right side up.

In 1797, she was born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree in Ulster county, New York. She grew up working from dawn until dusk for her master. She slept on a cellar floor and at age 9 was sold with a flock of sheep for $100.00. She suffered all the indignities of being owned by someone until one day in 1827, she walked out the door never to return.

When Isabella was 46, she felt a calling to spread God’s truth so strongly she couldn’t resist. To do this she would have to travel across the land, so she thought it fitting to change her name to Sojourner. While in bondage, she had been sold four different times. With each new master came a new last name. As a free woman, she decided to choose her own. Knowing she was God’s child, she took on the name Truth. And thus began Sojourner Truth’s public life.

She began preaching to predominantly white audiences on the evils of slavery. She would not, could not be hushed. She spoke with authority when sharing the humiliation and abuse slaves endured. She was close to six feet tall and stood erect and dignified. As soon as she grasped that in many ways women were as oppressed as slaves, she became an advocate for women’s rights. She could see that when her people were freed she would then be under the black man’s domination, just as white women were with their husbands.

Although she couldn’t read or write, she had a fine mind and a sharp wit. Sojourner saw her blackness, being female and uneducated not as deficiencies but the perfect traits needed to bring about God’s plan to change the world. Her illiteracy made her memorize scripture and forced her to go within for her answers. She knew she wasn’t capable of writing a speech. Her only hope was to ask her Father in heaven to speak through her. At the beginning of one lecture she confided to her audience, “Children, I come like the rest of you to hear what I have to say.”

In 1851, Sojourner attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. Where without preparation, she delivered her most famous speech, Ain’t I a Woman? While standing at the podium, she addressed a man in the crowd who had shouted that women shouldn’t have as many rights as men because Christ wasn’t a woman. She answered him, “You say Jesus was a man, so that means God favors men over women. Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” After she concluded her thoughts, applause filed the room. Sojourner Truth had stopped the naysayers in their tracks. Her words burned like fire. She was a wonder to behold.

Sojourner went on to meet presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. She developed a friendship with fellow human rights activist Harriet Tubman. She tried to vote on two occasions, but was turned away both times. She died in 1883 at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan.

When her death was imminent Sojourner said, “I’m not going to die, I’m going home like a shooting star.” Today that star still hangs in the sky to illuminate the way for women everywhere. At that the end of her Ohio speech, she informed her audience, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” Amen.

One of several portraits that Sojourner Truth sold to finance her speaking tours in the 1860s.

One of several portraits that Sojourner Truth sold to finance her speaking tours in the 1860s.

Click here to see a moving reenactment of Sojourner Truth’s speech, Ain’t I a Women? by actress Alfre Woodard.

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

I Love You to the Moon and Back

I Love You  the Moon and Back

My love will always light your path

And guide you to the moon and back.

It greets you at the break of day

And whispers from the milky way.

- Sue Shanahan, Love You to the Moon & Back (2012)

 The first time I heard the phrase, “I love you to the moon and back” was in the 1990′s while watching the Rosie O’Donnell Show. Rosie’s son, Parker, had exclaimed it to her when she was tucking him in bed the night before. She thought it was the cutest thing she’d ever heard and had to share it with the world. I don’t know if this term of endearment originated with her son, but as an artist, I couldn’t get the imagery of it out of my mind.

“I love you to the moon and back.” Hmmm, what would that look like? Would the moon be crescent shaped or full? And how does one get to the moon and back? On an airplane? A rocket ship? Or does one simply sprout wings and fly? And who would go to all of that trouble to declare their love anyway?

Soon the answers began to materialize in my head. It’s wonderful to have an imagination. Right off the bat, I knew a boy should be included in the illustration because I’d first heard the expression from Parker O’Donnell. I adored my great-nephew Matt and thought he’d be the perfect subject to base my art on. As the image in my mind’s eye came into focus, I began to make out a little boy riding on a missile to a wise, retro Man in the Moon. Voila! I couldn’t wait to begin.

When Matt’s mom brought him over for me to photograph, I thought I was prepared. I had my son Brian ready to stand in for the missile by getting down on all fours. His mom would set a pajama clad Matt on his back, and I would snap away. I don’t know what I was thinking. How could I have forgotten what a wild child my great-nephew was? I literally only had time to take one shot of Matt before he insisted (and I do mean insisted) on climbing off of Brian’s back. He was done. But that one shot was all I needed. It turned out to be the perfect photo reference to create the lyrical feel I was looking for in my drawing. The creative process is mystical. It has a mind of its own. When I don’t push but instead allow it to come into being, a thing of wonder always emerges.

Creativity is hard to define but its presence is always felt. It’s no accident that it is a derivative of the word Creator. It accesses an energy field that is part of the Divine. What other force could make something out of nothing?

And it’s the same way with love. Although it’s invisible, its effects are always seen. Love takes the puzzle pieces strewn across the floor and puts them together to make something beautiful and whole. Its spark lights our paths. It fills in the holes and gaps. And it’s what inspires a child to say the words a mother will hold dear all the days of her life.

The glimpse of Matt I caught on film.

The glimpse of Matt I caught on film.

* Since Valentine’s Day is almost here and I Love You to the Moon and Back is one of my absolute favorite illustrations, I would love to share 3 signed prints with my readers. All you have to do is follow my blog and make a comment. At the end of the month I will put the names in a hat and pick 3.

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

Being Beautiful is Not a Profession

I learned very young that a woman’s power came from her looks. Specifically, my beauty, or lack there of, was how my worth was measured. The straightness of my nose and thickness of my eyelashes were important but useless if I wasn’t skinny. Tall and sturdy for my age, I took on the onus of “the fat kid” long before the title fit. My mother, with her movie star looks, was ashamed of me. She saw me as extension of herself.

My first attempt at weight loss was in the fourth grade. I had the brilliant idea of slicing my stomach with a razor and squeezing the fat out. Of course, I never could go through with it.  Every night as I lay in bed, the success of my day was measured by how little I ate. The obsession to be thin had already taken hold.

When puberty hit, my weight soared out of control. The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. I looked at the models in Seventeen magazine and knew I could never measure up. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the models didn’t measure up either. They had been airbrushed to flawlessness in their photos.

When I turned sixteen, my mother typed a rite of passage letter to me and signed it with, “Love, Mom.” What struck me the most in it was her advice to “marry a man who is going places and will take you with him.” I had learned the only bargaining tool to hitch that ride was my looks. And what I saw in the mirror told me I was doomed. I decided I’d better develop my talents.

My story does have a happy ending. At 23, I married a man who loved me just the way I was. Whenever I questioned how he could be attracted to me he said, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I thought that was his way of saying I love you in spite of how you look. Today I know better. My husband was way smarter than the media gave most credit for. He could see past the images that beauty advertisements were trying to force down our throats. After 34 years of marriage, he still loves my soul and my own brand of gorgeous that encapsulates it.

Over the years, with a concentrated effort, I’ve undone much of the damage to my body image. Movies like Miss Representation have helped. Most recently a wonderful blog post by Kasey Edwards affirmed my belief that the way most women see their bodies is an illusion. Our perception has little to do with how the world sees us.

I’ve come to peace with my mother and her inability to accept the body I was born into. I see now that like me, she was a victim of “lookism.” Born in the 1920′s, a bride in the 1950′s, she was a product of our culture. In her own convoluted way, she was just trying to keep me safe. She was passing on the societal expectations she had learned from her own mother.

Yes, at times, I still fall back into feeling horrified by the way I look. Recently, I saw a picture of myself that made me cringe. Instead of taking the feelings to heart, I now compare them to how I feel hearing a recording of my voice. Like most people, I don’t like the way I sound, but don’t take the foreignness of it to mean I’m flawed. In the same way, I no longer take my reaction to a photograph of myself to heart either. It doesn’t mean anything. My initial discomfort doesn’t stem from how I look but comes from the disconnection I feel of looking at a shell. The “real” me is formless.

Our world is evolving and so am I. The best gage of my self-acceptance is my daughter and the women my sons chose to marry. All three are stunning, accomplished women. They exude self-confidence and embrace who they are. No matter how thin or pretty, they would never think to add the superficial to their list of achievements. They where brought up knowing their power isn’t on the outside but lies within, being beautiful is no longer a career path.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

After seeing my art on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Annie commissioned me to illustrate the above portrait of her as Glinda the Good Witch and her daughter as Dorothy. She wanted her little girl to know she had the power inside herself to make her dreams come true.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

My mom (second from left) at a luncheon shortly before she married my dad.

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

Let it Snow – Hercules Couldn’t Keep Me from My Son’s Wedding

Let it Snow

Friday, January third, was my birthday. This year it was to be part of a bigger celebration. My husband Bob, our son Rob, his wife Emily and I were booked on an early morning flight from Chicago to Boston. We were going to attend the wedding rehearsal and dinner for our youngest son Brian and his fiancée Pam that evening. The following afternoon they were to be married at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Kingston, Massachusetts. Rob was Brian’s best man and Emily was one of Pam’s bridesmaids. We had the important task of transporting their wedding bands and my grandmother’s wedding pearls to adorn the bride. Over 20 family members and friends were flying to take part in the festivities. Yes, it was going to be a memorable birthday and a perfect weekend.

Earlier in the week Pam, concerned, texted me about a weather report of a snowstorm hitting Boston on Thursday and Friday. I assured her it was too early to tell. If the weather conditions can’t be accurately predicted for the next day, how can an advance forecast be trusted? I was having none of it. Besides we were flying out early enough that, worse-case scenario, we would get in late Friday night. No matter what, we would be at their wedding on Saturday.

When the snow did begin dumping in Boston on Thursday, I still felt certain we would get out the next day, even if our flight was delayed. Brian called around dinner time to tell us our Friday morning flight had been cancelled. Although we hadn’t been notified by the airlines, a friend of his, taking the same flight, had been. I immediately got on the phone and rebooked our tickets for nine o’clock Friday evening. Our flight cancellation was a little glitch in our plans, that’s all. Sure, we were going to miss the rehearsal and dinner, but what was really important was that we’d make it to the wedding.

Then our Friday evening flight was cancelled. I quickly got on the phone and after a 30 minute hold, learned there were no more flights to Boston out of Chicago. Beginning to panic, I asked if there were any fights available from Chicago to Providence. Lucky for us, there were seven seats left on a nine o’clock flight and we booked four of them. Whew!

Keep going – Harriet Tubman

Bob, Rob, Emily and I headed to the airport around five o’clock. We wanted to get there as early as we could. At this point, we weren’t taking any chances of missing our flight. When we were 20 minutes away, I got a text from our daughter, Bridget. She and her husband had managed to drive from Vermont to Boston and were at the rehearsal dinner. The message read  simply, “Your flight has been cancelled. I’m so sorry.” Why wasn’t the airline notifying us of this? Minutes later Bridget called to tell us that in spite of what was now being dubbed Winter Storm Hercules, there was a nine o’clock flight from Chicago to Manchester, New Hampshire, available. It was only a couple of hours from Boston.

We sped to the airport. The men dropped Emily and me off before they parked the car so we could try and get us onto the Manchester flight. Our spirits plummeted when we saw the length of the line formed to rebook flights. We would never get to the ticket agent in time to fly to Manchester. It hit me to try and call the airline on my cell phone. After dialing and getting through all the prompts, I was told my wait for an attendant would be 19 to 33 minutes. Oh no! It seemed like there was no way we were going to make it to the wedding. Miraculously, an agent answered the phone in less than a minute and booked us seats on the Manchester flight.

After parking, Bob and Rob raced in to find us standing in a short line waiting to be checked in. After we got our boarding passes, we went through security with 30 minutes to spare before our flight took off. It was smooth sailing from then on. After landing in New Hampshire, we drove to Massachusetts. We checked into our hotel and were curled up in our beds by three o’clock in the morning.

On my birthday I had asked for prayers on Facebook and Twitter to get us to our son’s wedding. That was the only present I wanted. Saturday morning I woke up to an East Coast winter wonderland, knowing I had gotten my wish. I was energized and ready to embrace the day. We were going to our youngest son’s wedding.

The ceremony was more beautiful than my mind could ever have imagined. In spite of 20 guests not being able to make it, the day still overflowed with joy. That evening at the reception, the bride and groom stood up to make an announcement. First they thanked everyone for the great lengths they had gone to to get there. Then Pam said that it was no secret she and Brian were having a baby. A cheer filled the room when we learned they had decided to surprise us all with an unveiling cake. For those who haven’t heard of this, it’s a cake that is either blue or pink on the inside. The gender of the baby is revealed when it’s cut into. When the bride had her last ultrasound, the technician wrote the sex of their baby on a piece of paper and sealed it in an envelope. Pam then mailed it to the baker so she and Brian would be surprised too. It was a such a lovely way to learn that in April we will be welcoming a baby boy, our first grandchild, into the world.

Mrs. and Mr. Brian Shanahan

It's a boy!

It’s a boy!

That night as we lay in bed, Bob and I wondered and worried about our flight back home the next day. The weather was clear and mild in Boston but now Chicago was in the middle of a snowstorm, to be followed by subarctic temperatures.  My husband was quite certain I should have booked an earlier flight. Would our late afternoon flight be cancelled? Me, I truthfully didn’t care. We had made it to Brian and Pam’s wedding.

 Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer. – Harold Adamson

The next morning we learned that all of those scheduled for the eight o’clock flight had gotten out successfully. After that, all the flights were cancelled – all accept ours. We have no idea why.

And so we took off and arrived in Chicago on time that evening. Our airplane landed on a snow-packed runway amidst a winter storm. As we descended, through the snow that blew past my window, I swear I saw an angel glowing on the wing of our plane.

Getting to Brian and Pam’s wedding was the best birthday gift I’ve ever received. How the events played out confirmed the power of prayer to me. It solidified my faith in a benevolent presence that oversees every aspect of our lives. In spite of newscasts and friends calling to tell us we’d probably not make it to Boston, we never gave up hope. If we had listened to them and thrown in the towel, we would not have gotten there. Things may look bleak on the surface, but you never know what’s working in your favor behind-the-scenes. The circumstances in our lives aren’t happening to us, they are happening for us. It’s not necessary for me to try and unravel the mystery of how or why we got to our son’s wedding. I am just happy knowing that for a few days, we lived inside a miracle.

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

Hope in the New Year

The pears in the drawing symbolize hope. The mocking bird is not only from Oprah’s favorite book, "To Kill a Mockingbird" but is the official State Bird of Mississippi.

The pears in the drawing symbolize hope. The mocking bird is not only from Oprah’s favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” but is the official State Bird of Mississippi.

“Hope makes the impossible possible.” – Lorna Byrne
In 2001, I drew the above portrait after a gloomy period of questioning my career as an artist. My slow progress made me wonder if what I had envisioned for myself was nothing more than a fantasy. My discouragement dissipated after turning on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I was reminded that any obstacle I faced was minuscule in comparison to what she had been born into. She is black, female and perhaps the worst sin of all, ample in size. Yet none of this has stood in her way of  becoming one of the most influential women in the world. Yes, Oprah’s life clearly shows anything is possible. There is much to hope for.
Born in rural Mississippi to an unwed mother, Oprah was left to be raised by her grandmother, Hattie Mae. Oprah remembers at age four, standing on the back porch churning butter. Her grandmother, called to her as she hung cloths on the line, “Oprah Gail, you better watch me now, ’cause one day you gon’ have to know how to do this for yourself.” But hope had already made a nest in Oprah’s soul. She refused to accept her grandmother’s vision for her future. She knew deep inside her life would be more than hanging clothes on a line.
Growing up, I think the same thing that perched in Oprah’s soul breathed in mine too. Looking back I remember cultivating hope as a kid by saving my drawings for biographers who would one day write about my life as an artist. Then, as a teenager, I wrote to Norman Rockwell for advice on how to become an illustrator. The encouragement in his response confirmed that my dreams where indeed possible. Hope is the tiny spark of light barely seen that pulls us forward. Without its flicker, I never would have taken the initiative to save my art or contact my hero.
2014 is going to be a good year. It’s the year for reaping what we’ve so patiently sown. It’s the year when our long-held dreams will be brought to fruition. No matter where we stand, we can see the glimmer of a better day. How do I know all this? Because 2014 is the year of hope. It’s time to fan that flame.
The painting for a Mother’s Day card I made when I was eight.

A painting for a Mother’s Day card I saved for my biographer when I was eight.

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

Don’t Waste the Miracle

Love Came DownThere’s a spiritual energy that covers the earth during the holiday season. It’s that undefinable “something” that makes people more selfless, more friendly and kind when December rolls around. As a child I learned it was called the Christmas spirit. Wise people tap into it and carry it with them throughout the new year.

We all hunger for a spiritual connection. It’s occurred to me that’s what all the frantic shopping and gift giving are about. Remember when you were little, the exhilaration you felt when you found what Santa left for you under the tree? And as adults there’s nothing better than watching a loved one open the “perfect” gift you’ve bought for them. The presents we buy, are our way of trying to capture the joy we’ve learned to associate with the season. A feeling, I believe, we can get long term by having a relationship with the Divine. During the holidays, we’re given an opportunity to discover or renew that connection. By consciously immersing ourselves in that love, we are transformed. All things become new. We feel the wonder of a child again.

Irish mystic, Lorna Byrne, says special angels visit the earth during the December festivities. They come to join us for the celebrations that happen across all the different beliefs and religions. She sees thousands of angels flying over houses and buildings. Lorna explains, “The angels are dropping balls of light to help us adults reconnect with the joy and innocence we felt as children. After the angels have fulfilled their task they head heavenward and disappear.” For me, this explains the mechanics behind the surge of good will I feel this time of year. I’ve learned the easiest way to connect to that energy field is to simply ask the Creator for help. Then, in the quietness of the now, awe will settle upon you.

This year our family is taking a hiatus from gift giving. With our youngest’s wedding January 4 and our first grandchild due in the spring, we thought the break would take the pressure off of everyone. Happily, the Christmas spirit is still intact and stronger than ever in my husband and me. All of our children and their spouses will be home for the holidays. Who could ask for more?

Love still comes down at Christmas. Grab hold of it. Plug into it….don’t waste the miracle.

Me unwrapping the joy on Christmas morning 1963

Me unwrapping the joy on Christmas morning 1963

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

For the Love of Grace

Grace of My Heart

Grace of My Heart

“Blessed be childhood, which brings down something of heaven into the midst of our rough earthliness” -Henri Fredric Amiel

The little girl in the above illustration is Grace Audrey McDonnell. She is one of the twenty children whose lives were cut short at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14. Although I didn’t know her personally, she has taken residence in my heart. I was first introduced to her while watching the news. President Obama shared Grace with the world during a speech unveiling his gun control agenda last January. The president brought to light the details of her life. He said, “Grace was seven years old when she was struck down. Just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of being a painter. And just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings. And I hung it in my private study, just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace …”

Hearing about Grace’s art hanging in the president’s study triggered some memories of my own. I had been beyond thrilled when I learned Hillary Clinton had hung my portrait of Chelsea in her private study when she was first lady. It saddened me Grace wasn’t here to know of the honor bestowed upon her painting.

I was drawn to Grace and began reading articles about her short life. We had so much in common. Like me, she was born with the soul of an artist. When she grew up, she wanted to live on Martha’s Vineyard. Vacationing there every summer for years, I share her love for everything about that island. And I learned that, like me, some of her happiest moments were spent there.

I felt such a connection to Grace. The thought began coming to me that I had to paint a portrait of her for her parents. I tried to dismiss it as just a sympathetic impulse, but the entreaty wouldn’t leave me alone. I had the distinct feeling it was something Grace wanted me to do. It was my part to play in her family’s healing. The painting would be a gift from Grace through me. I tried pushing these thoughts down but they were always there, humming in the background. Finally, I surrendered to them and tracked down her mom, Lynn. Understanding she might be wary, I expressed my conviction with trepidation. Grief is such a personal thing. I didn’t want to add to her parent’s burden in any way. Lynn accepted my offer and sent me the program from Grace’s memorial service. When I opened it up, I knew I had found the picture to base her portrait on. Inside the booklet was a photo of Grace taken by her mother at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. The pensiveness in that child’s beautiful eyes revealed her soul – a look only a mother could capture.

Last week, I put the finishing touches on my painting of Grace. All that’s left to do is pack it up and ship it to her family. My hope is that anyone who reads this post prays for Grace, and for the healing of all those she left behind. Collective prayer always brings miracles.

Grace Audrey McDonnell didn’t have an ounce of hate in her. She was the light and the love of her family. She was Chris and Lynn’s daughter and Jack’s little sister. She was a granddaughter, a friend and loved by many. But to me, she will always be, simply Grace of my heart.

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