Don’t Have a Fairy Godmother? Borrow One

Elli&Agapi

Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughter, Agapi

“Creative minds have always been known to survive any kind of bad training.” -Anna Freud

I’ve made a practice of gleaning wisdom and support from women I admire. Because my mom was not the “in your corner” type, I learned to do this at a young age. Growing up under her tutelage forced me to figure out ways to get my need for nurturing met. My search led me to reading books with omniscient mother figures and happy endings. It’s no accident that as a child Cinderella was a favorite story of mine. That evil stepmom may have been in control for a time, but she was no match for the powers of a fairy godmother. By fifth grade, I had graduated to being utterly taken with Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, in Little Women. Her steadfast devotion to her girls was the launching pad for them to live their dreams. Somehow reading about the security of unconditional love was healing to me.

In my twenties, I discovered how author Maya Angelo mothered Oprah Winfrey. Her love and wise council helped Oprah to become her “best self.” I began studying other strong women who pointed their daughters in the right direction. I embraced the relationships of Eunice Shriver and her daughter, Maria, Dorothy Howell Rodham and her daughter, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and finally Elli Stassinopoulos and her daughters, Agapi Stassinopoulos and Arianna Huffington. All of these mothers inspired me and gave me a lead to follow. Since I considered them as more than mentors, I christened them fairy godmothers. Remember the sparkle Cinderella’s fairy godmother brought to her life? She gave the added magic needed to help Cinderella leave behind the cinders she made her bed in. That’s what these mothers I admire did for me.

One of my favorite of the godmothers is Elli Stassinopoulos.  In my painting above, she’s pictured with her daughter Agapi on Agapi’s 16th birthday. I first read about Elli in Agapi’s book, Unbinding the Heart. Elli was a remarkable woman. She was not accomplished by the world’s standards and yet gave much to the world. Her daughters are living proof of that. Elli knew what was important in life. It was people not things that mattered. There was no hierarchy in her world. She treated a government official and a plumber with the same warmth and generosity. She never allowed her daughters to feel “less than.” She knew that both of them were born with the gifts needed to fulfill their life’s purpose and she stood in support of that. Reading about Elli made me think of how much easier my life would have been if I were raised by a mom like her. My soul would have known its worth, instead of having to fight for it every step of the way. Getting to know Elli helped soothe what I lacked.

201202-orig-agapi-stassinopoulos-600x411 copy

The Photo I based my painting on.

I reached out to Agapi for permission to work from the photograph I based my watercolor on. Elli reminded me of the fairy godmother in Disney’s Cinderella in the picture. Agapi was kind enough to grant her consent and even gave her thoughts on the art in progress. All along she was pleased that I was capturing her mom’s spirit. What she was having trouble with, was my portrayal of herself. We both knew something was off. Was it her eyes? Or her smile? She could not pinpoint it and in my revisions neither could I. Finally, in frustration, I thought to ask Elli for help. I reasoned that since she had passed away in 2000 she would have the clarity of a higher vantage point. As soon as I sent out my request, I got the distinct feeling to have a glass of red wine and stop trying so hard. I should just relax and enjoy the process. I did just that and had fun tweaking the piece. In a flash, I was done and satisfied with the results. When I sent a file of it to Agapi, she responded,“It’s great!” I smiled as I wondered why I hadn’t called on Elli sooner. Of course she would want me to do justice to her girl.

In my life, I’ve found that within every hardship there are always blessings. I believe I was given the perfect mother to help me become who I was born to be. Without the difficulty of being raised by her, I don’t think I’d have the insight and compassion I do today.  Plus, I may have never discovered the wisdom of these beautiful women I call fairy godmothers. I’ve studied and absorbed how they moved through life. Their philosophies have become my philosophies. Today, I’m happy to say I share their wise council with others who’ve been gifted with moms similar to mine. In this way, even though my fairy godmothers no longer grace the planet, their magic goes on and continues to break the spells that others live under.

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

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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

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. -W. B. Yeats

Back in 2001, I took what felt like a huge risk. I sent a dummy of a children’s picture book that I’d written and illustrated to Maria Shriver. She was aware of my children’s illustrations and especially liked a portrait I had created for her friend Oprah Winfrey. Still, in all honesty, I felt beneath her. She was accomplished in every area of her life, including writing children’s books. At that time, I was struggling to find my voice as a writer and infuse life into my illustrations.

I’m sure Maria has no idea the gift that was wrapped in her response to me. Although she admitted she usually didn’t look at books that were about to be published, she made an exception with mine. She was thoughtful enough to read it with one of her little girls who loved fairy stories. In her letter to me, Maria shared her daughter’s insights about the book. Although I had a publisher interested in it at the time, I decided to switch gears and rewrite the story. Recreating all the art and implementing her daughter’s suggestions into the book was a huge task. Looking back, I am so glad I did it. Her daughter’s ideas were the beginnings of bringing my book to life.

Through the years and a few more revisions I stand on the threshold of Glory in the Morning being published. Maria’s kindness not only changed the direction of the book but it changed the trajectory of my life. She took the time to see me and believe in me and helped me to know that my dreams mattered. Her validation gave me the realization that there’s a place in the world for me and my gifts.

 Glory in the Morning is now  the subject of a Kickstarter campaign that ends Nov. 5th.Preliminary sketch for Glory in the Morning. Soon There Will Be No Me to Believe in from Glory in the Morning.My little fairy in the flesh.Page from Maria Shriver’s letter.

All text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.