A reddish orange glow filled the sky like a Hudson River School scene — a sunrise so brilliant and so colorful, no one would believe it in a painting. The light streamed in through my window, awakening me far too early, as summer sunrises do. Covers over my head, I managed to fall back to sleep and get a couple more hours. Now, on this old porch, the sun is brilliantly reflecting off the water like a Joseph McGurl painting, shimmering into my eyes directly in front of me.
The tick of the old Sessions clock from the living room fills my ears on this otherwise quiet morning. Birds frolic through the trees and there is complete stillness on the lake, the water barely moving.
The first savory sip of my coffee is flavor-filled and glorious. If you close your eyes and take a sip, it makes a regular, mundane thing seem spectacular.
This morning my back is scolding me for abusing it yesterday as I moved stacks and stacks of old paintings out of storage in the boathouse into the old workshop, my new makeshift art studio. Since my mother’s passing and my goal to purge things I no longer need, I realize I’ve been holding on to these paintings for decades. Most I would not show anyone, embarrassed by their simplicity and lack of skill — and fearful that they could make it into the market if something should happen to me. Each proudly holds my signature because when I made them, I was proud of them. Today, as a much more accomplished painter, I see them as lessons and experiments. Yesterday I had them piled up and ready for the trash, when my sister-in-law asked to look through them before I dumped them. She grabbed a couple she liked, which made me realize that they had some value to someone. Now, I’m reconsidering my hoarding, not sure if I should keep them for sentimental reasons, or just photograph them for memory and let them go.
What You Own Owns You
At my recent painting event someone said, “What you own owns you.” My hoard of old paintings, and the boxes of stuff we recently moved, are great examples. Things that have sentimental value, along with things you hate to throw away because you might need them someday — or because you paid a lot for them, even though they’re worthless today.
I’ve not yet unpacked the clothes I moved and have done just fine with a couple of pairs of pants and a couple of shirts for the past two weeks. Why do I need more?
Some of us own a lot, some own little. But we truly are owned by what we own. I think of a reader, whose name I shouldn’t mention, who a year ago told me they wanted to move but dreaded moving and going through “so much stuff.” And they were handcuffed to their state because selling would mean massive taxation that would impact their retirement. They were owned by what they owned. Months after telling me this, a fire took everything and painfully gave them the freedom they sought.
The Dream They Sell Us
Our media and success gurus talk about making boatloads of money so we can own the houses, the jets, the boats, and all the stuff, but what no one ever talks about is how those things own you. Each has to be maintained, houses have taxes and need new roofs and need to be repaired, as do cars and boats. My friend who owns a jet has millions in annual expenses. Once you get these things, you have to make more money to keep them. They become like addictions that have to be satisfied.
The Pressure of a Business
The same is true for a business. Some of us follow the dream of building a business, but once we accomplish that dream, those businesses own us. We have the costs of employees, benefits, insurance, rent, taxes, and we have the pressure of making sure those employees can take good care of their families. Suddenly that business owns you and creates that pressure to make sure it continues. With that comes the need to continually grow (sitting still is going backwards) and continually innovate to keep up with the marketplace. And that need to keep things going means we make decisions that we might not make if we did not have that pressure. A business owns you.
We Can’t Get Enough!
The more we get, the more we want, the more we have to keep generating income, and the more we are owned. And the cycle never seems to end. For instance, that home has taxes and maintenance forever and into retirement. If you plan to stay, you have to have set aside enough, including enough for the unexpected and for increases over time.
Obsessions That Own Us
I used to collect antique radios, and I had over 100 of them. My brother collects books and has thousands. A friend collects, and has hundreds of dolls. Lots of my friends collect paintings. At some point those things we love having around us have to find a new home, either once we’re relocating or downsizing, or once we pass on. When cleaning out my mom’s stuff, I found all kinds of “collections,” and I have no idea if they are valuable or not, but it was left to us to figure out. Now her stuff owns us until it’s resolved.
Where Does Happiness Lie?
I’ve seen surveys about the happiest people on earth, and I’ve met people who live in poverty worse than anything most of us could imagine — yet they are happy. Many of us are happy too, but many can never get enough, or are griping about the chains of ownership … the costs to keep something going.
Are Sacrifices Worth It?
Stages of life impact state of mind. The chains of ownership become heavier with age. And we ultimately have to determine what burdens we’re willing to carry for the things we own. For me, for instance, the burdens of owning a business are worth all the effort because I’m seeing lives changed.
When I was a young man I wanted stuff. I wanted cool cars, I dreamed of owning big houses … I never got all the stuff I dreamed of (which in hindsight was a blessing). As I got older those things meant less to me. There was a time when I had a Porsche and a BMW and a Volvo, yet today I’m happy with my 16-year-old Honda Element, my favorite car ever. And it does not own me much, where the other cars had payments and cost $1,000 with every visit to the dealership.
What Are the Tradeoffs?
Today I think twice about what I want to own. What am I willing to put up with? Does the reward exceed the trouble and the cost? Our little cabin on the lake draws the family together and hopefully will keep the kids and their families returning for a lifetime and possibly generations. Though it’s a lot of upkeep because of harsh winters and because it’s over 125 years old, at the moment, it’s worth being owned. If it ever becomes more than we can bear, we won’t let it own us anymore.
Now, with every purchase, I’m asking myself, will this own me? Will it be worth it? Will it be difficult to get rid of? Do I really want and need it?
What owns you?
What is it that you own that binds you?
What do you have that has become a burden?
What are the strings, the efforts, and the costs associated with the things you think you want?
What do you own that is impacting your happiness?
My number one goal is happiness in life. Everything we do should focus on that, because without it, all the hard parts of life become only a burden.
Since Independence Day is right around the corner (it’s hard to believe tomorrow is July already), it’s time to gain independence from the chains that bind you.
PS: Our family has a habit of thanking service members for their service. We have our independence because of them and those like them who put their lives on the line. At our Publisher’s Invitational I met Matt Borax, a former Special Forces officer who told me about his experiences in the service. He pointed out the impact of PTSD and that after years of training to be on high alert, and then seeing combat, that high alert never goes away for many once they are home. These people are always keyed up and may feel that a bomb or a sniper is right around the next corner. Painting has been the one thing that has changed his life and helped him relax and get away from this curse of PTSD. I told Matt about our PleinAir Force Veterans Squad, where we are training hundreds of former service members in how to paint, something he strongly supports. If you know someone who needs to get a mental break from PTSD or other issues, painting is an excellent outlet. Let me know and I’ll put them in touch with someone who can help in their area. Or they can start with the very basics at my free online lessons at www.paintbynote.com, which starts with the things every painter needs to know first.
PS2: I spent part of last week at the Norman Rockwell Museum on a project I’ll reveal next March. It’s an incredible museum and a must-see if you’re in the Berkshires.
PS3: I’ve sold out my Ghost Ranch Fall Color Week this fall. I am taking a group of art lovers and collectors on a trip to Provence and the South of France this October. You can learn more about that at finearttrip.com. There are only six slots left.