An early morning sailor takes advantage of high winds as their antique boat darts back and forth across the lake with the grace of a ballerina, changing directions suddenly as the old tea-stained sail captures the orange morning light against the purple distant mountains.
It reminds me of life, sailing gracefully in one direction till the wind runs out, and then a necessary pivot to capture the wind takes us in new directions.
The Great Cleansing
When we lose a loved one, as I did this spring, we tend to think deeply about their life and our own, in hopes of being more or less like the ones we lost. And with loss comes responsibility — in this case, clearing out his lakefront summer home, where he had accumulated things since 1987.
Here, Bidder Bidder
Because we are putting his home up for auction on August 14, my wife and I (mostly her) have been working feverishly to getting move-out ready and getting the home ready to show, so we don’t have to sort through old boxes under pressure of a closing date.
Yesterday, and all last weekend, I had the pleasure of going through a garage full of boxes, one box at a time, including financial records, business archives, old photos, books, and random things that had stuffed drawers and shelves over decades.
What to Let Go Of?
The tough decisions are what to shed and what to keep, knowing of things that had great meaning to him, but no meaning to us. Though I know I’ll never need them, I could not throw out the yearbooks from Fort Wayne Bible College and South Side High School, where my dad was the portrait photographer and where his ad for photography appeared. I only hung on to them because I felt he would not want us to let that part of his history go.
Going through a hundred or more boxes, file folder by file folder, I saw a life unfold. Press clippings, press releases, photos, business plans, contracts, and documents closing out those businesses. It was as if an entire life happened in a single day.
Life in a Box
When I wrote my book Blast from the Past: A Pictorial History of Radio’s First 75 Years, I experienced the same thing. I’d go through boxes and archives. I remember finding the old files for Jack Benny, who started in Vaudeville before radio. Clippings of his entire life fit into one big box. First was the clipping from a high school newspaper of his onstage appearance in school, then his first stage appearance, then reviews, then his entry into radio, then clippings about the shows, then his entry to TV, and it went on and on until the clipping of his obituary. A whole life in a box.
As I looked through hundreds of photos, trying to determine what to save, I saw my dad’s progression in life, becoming an officer in various organizations, photos of speeches and banquets, photos with unknown people. I could see the tremendous amount of work that went into that, and could imagine how excited he must have been to receive the appointments and press coverage. Yet I wondered if it was all worthwhile. Did it matter?
The Game of Life
I often look at life like a pinball machine. The ball shoots out of the spring-loaded launcher, heads to the top, hits a barrier, bounces off, hits another, and then you try to hit a flipper to keep the ball going. Sometimes you keep it going and add points, and sometimes your ball falls into the bottom, ending the game. In our lives we launch, often not knowing where we are going, but hoping we will gain points (which might be money, recognition, doing good works). Then we get flipped in a different direction, and we keep going again, till forced into a different direction still.
My dad once told me, “Son, you never end up where you set out to go. Enjoy the journey.” He gave me examples of businesses he had started with a specific intent that didn’t end up going in the direction he set out. Often, they turned out better.
When I started in radio, I envisioned being the next big radio star, but I ended up writing about radio, owning a radio trade magazine, and then, by accident, discovering art and building a life in the art world. It was not predictable.
I once wrote that roadblocks serve a purpose, often making us stronger, and often making us go down a different road. No matter how good we are at goal-setting and planning, we cannot anticipate all the roadblocks. Soon, the flipper pushes us in an unexpected direction.
Are Efforts Worthwhile?
What I learned from the boxes of a life well-lived is that we cannot control our direction entirely, though we can try, but the memories are all we have. Decades of paperwork, preceded by thousands of meetings and discussions, legal work, and negotiations — it all ended up in a dumpster. What matters is the outcome in life. Did the efforts serve to make a life well lived? Did the efforts result in making life better for others, not just for ourselves?
One day my kids will be going through my boxes (and hard drives), seeing evidence of all the things I once worried about where worry wasn’t necessary. Things I craved that turned out to be fruitless or meaningless, recognition I sought that served no purpose. It makes me realize the preciousness of every hour, of every glance into the eyes of my family, of every moment with my friends.
Your time is your own to control. Use it wisely. Use it to make life better for others, not just to enrich yourself.
Each photo was a memory, a moment, sometimes of things that took months or years to accomplish. A photo of an award onstage was the result of decades of serving others, hundreds of meetings and phone calls, and a tremendous amount of human energy. It’s why what you agree to spend your time on matters.
Over the years I’ve developed a filter in a series of questions I ask myself when I’m asked to make a commitment:
- Will it change the world or make life better for others in some way?
- Do I want to spend my time on it? Will it take me away from things that have higher importance?
- Is it related to my grand mission, or does it take me off focus?
- Is it important to help someone or some organization I love or respect?
- Will I look back in regret?
- Will it help others?
- Will it help my family?
- Will it take me away from home and family?
- Will I look back on my life and be glad I took the time and effort?
- How much time will it take to see it through, and will it be worth it?
I tend to be a pleaser, a giver. Yet we can give all we have and leave nothing for ourselves. We have to find balance. Coming up with your own list of questions will help you determine where to spend your time.
Remember that one split-second decision can change everything and place you at the end of the game, or on a new journey that will take another decade to accomplish. In either case, you want to guard your time.
Though I’d rather not have to sort through boxes, and I’m reminded that I must not leave a mess for my wife and kids, there were great lessons and thoughts from the cathartic effort. And whenever I’m doing something I’d rather not do, I always ask myself what lessons I’m supposed to discover.
What will be in your boxes? What will be the best time you can spend the rest of your life on?
Spend it well. Your time is the most valuable currency on earth.
PS: When my dad became ultra-successful, he was incredibly busy, a ball of stress, and often irritable. I remember wondering if it was all worth it. I remember wishing I had the dad back who used to take us fishing and waterskiing and canoeing. But it did not seem like that was in the cards, and I resigned myself that this was who he had become. But little did I know that he too had realized what was missing from his life, and he too wanted those days back.
As I look at all the papers, all the deals, all the meetings and travel, I realize that my dad went to all that effort so he could provide his family with exceptional experiences and memories. We’d stayed at a lake before, but when he moved our family to the Adirondacks, he became a better dad because the stress melted from his busy life and we got our real dad back. We have 30-plus years of memories at his place, every summer of my kids’ lives and every summer of my niece’s and nephew’s. It was a place where the family could renew its connection and build lasting memories. By spending a weekend or a few weeks between meetings at the camp, he became better in business and became a better dad.
He built an amazing place, and it’s my hope that the auction will result in the right family that needs a special place like no other on earth, to reconnect and to lose the stress of life. There are very few places on earth with this peace and quiet, with this tradition. I know, because we have our own camp now, and intend it to carry for generations of our family.
PS2: I discovered something about myself recently. When I held my artists’ retreat in the Adirondacks in June, I discovered how much I missed being around people, and how much those events mean to me, because I make so many new friends and renew so many friendships. Dave Crowl, who attended, said it best: “I’ve come back nine years in a row because this is my art family, and for me it’s like Thanksgiving. I would not miss it for anything.”
I’m doing my next retreat this fall here in the Adirondacks. I can never get enough friends.
PS 3: One of my bucket list items was to paint in Russia, where Repin, Levitan, and Shishkin and the great Russian masters painted. I’ve done it, and now I’m bringing it to you one time. It looks like it will happen, and I have some seats because a couple of people can’t make it. I probably won’t repeat it. Hope you’ll come.
Also, Peter Trippi and I are leading a group of art lovers to the museums and art scenes of Vienna and Berlin this October. It’s happening and will be loads of fun. Join us.
PS 4: Pastel Live is gaining momentum. Last week we had a huge number of people join us. If you see yourself learning pastel painting, it’s a joy to attend (and it’s all online this August).
My sincerest condolences for the loss of your father. Through every zig and zag, he obviously made the best of life. I commend him for leaving quite a legacy. That beautiful Adirondak cabin is a destination where generations can sit on the old porch and smell the evergreens while outboards zip across the lake. What a blessing! I often wish I had made better choices in life, where I could leave a legacy like that.
Its not often that I save email blasts. After all, we get barraged with so many. However, last Sunday was an exception. I printed and saved your Sunday Coffee. You see… my 87 year old mother was diagnosed with colon cancer a few months back. On Monday we were told it had metasticized to her brain. And this morning we received news she passed. I wrote her obituary this morning and thought about her incredible life.
Last Sunday’s “Sunday Coffee” was timely. Like your Dad, Mom was such a talented, driven woman. As a teen growing up in upstate New York, then Washington state, she honed her skills as a figure skater, performing for the Ice Follies. She was a gifted pianist, an artist, and so much more. Throughout the 60’s, she painted festive Holiday scenes on several businesses and homes in our small town of Walla Walla, WA. Very few people knew she was the artist. They just enjoyed what they saw. It was ‘temporary art’. Mom was a hair stylist for 45 years. She was President of the Washington State Cosmetology Association – and she served on their board. She volunteered to do hair and makeup at the local Little Theatre. And she styled hair for the deceased at a couple of mortuaries. All of those creative memories; the painted Holiday windows, the skating performances, those moments at the piano, and the beautiful hair creations she worked on so tirelessly – they’re all gone. Only a few oil paintings remain. The paintings will leave a legacy for generations. Her name was Joyce Holm. She’s happy now. No more suffering. I picture her dancing through the gates of Heaven – so full of joy.
I have come to the realization that I need to make a concerted effort in my retirement to create (lasting) memories. I finished my first watercolor yesterday. It’s a self-portrait on a yacht I worked on in Barcelona, Spain some years ago. I’m not happy with it. To me the painting is garbage. I can point out all of the mistakes. But it’s my first (well…not counting the ones I wadded up and threw in the trash). But I’ve decided I won’t throw this one away. If I die tomorrow, at least that “garbage” painting will leave a legacy. My son will hang it on his wall (maybe not where guests will see it). And then one day maybe one of my grandsons or granddaughters will hang it on their wall. I’ll be long gone. But I’ll smile from above as a little girl may point it and ask, “Daddy, who painted that picture?” “Well sweetheart, that was painted by your great-great-grandfather. Let me tell you about him…”
Thank you for taking the time to share your life with us. I look forward to your posts. There is always something that I can relate to.
P.S. Taking your words to heart, I have already started a great purge of craftsy items from my studio because I won’t have time for them anymore. Will be too busy painting, and my painting supplies need to claim prime real estate in there! Have a couple of dreams for putting new paintings to use for those trying to recover in hospitals and for illustrating a book. The more of your Sunday Coffees I read, the more I am doing “Big Picture” thinking!! Thank you, Eric!
Thank you, Eric. Hope the auction goes well and the outcome is best one for you and your family.
I found your story of the clean out of your father’s property ,and the considerations it disclosed to you, making you consider what really is important in life, very interesting.
These are revelations I also have come to consider deeply over the last 15 years since my remaining parent passed.
I believe this is what is referred to “as the getting of Wisdom”… and will not really mean very much to people younger than 60 years of age.
I believe that is the age one must achieve before real wisdom starts to settle on your shoulders, and you realize that possessions, those things you felt would enhance your life tremendously, and which you thought you could not live with out, can in fact easily be gone without, and the loss of them , through whatever means whether forced or voluntary, actually means very little in the grand scheme of things.
I think of it as finally growing up, but sadly not everyone actually reaches this enlightened state.
Congratulations Eric, to you , and to me also… on the attainment of a badge of merit in the Wisdom Category !
Great words of wisdom Eric
keep the Sunday’s up…
Bless you and your wonderful family
My condolences to you and your family. I truly enjoyed this story as I have gone through the same experience when we lost my youngest sister in 2018.
I now paint to help heal my Viet Nam Veteran brothers.
In 2020 I painted 20 portraits of my coffee group. We had a showing of the portraits on Veterans Day 2020 in Austin, Tx where I live. It was life changing for them.
Thank you for this inspiring Sunday morning chat.
This is just what I needed to think about. WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL OF THESE PASTEL PAINTINGS IN DRAWERS AND HANGING ON WALLS THAT NO ONE SEES????????? Hope everyone has some ideas.
At least yours is the kind of art that can hang on the wall. The vast majority of art I’ve created over the years has been commercial. A branded ad piece. A website. They took great effort. But their time passed. It was ‘temporary’ art that will never be framed and displayed. It will never leave a legacy. On the other hand, your pastels will live forever. Someone will enjoy them. I have several original paintings and etchings hanging in our home from unknown artists. I love them! Leave your pastels as a legacy to those who will enjoy them for generations – relatives, friends, galleries, museums, benefit auctions, or the random person that shows interest and just appreciates your work. God bless you for recognizing the beauty this world has to offer, and spending countless hours translating those images to visual art that others can marvel and reflect upon.
Thank you Eric,
I appreciate you have been taking your time selflessly to do so many things for so many people, specially for artists. We appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts.
This Sunday Coffee news letter you had pointed out things that I have been putting off for a long time, and I had been procrastinating. Thanks for sharing this deep thoughts for us to really looking into our own life. Wished I could thank you in person.
P.S. I have written to you about one of the most important international artist Milind Mulick who is from India, do not know if you have gotten the email about it. Please take a look at him, you might want to include him for Watercolor Live.
As we get older our time seems to be our priority, how we spend it is so important in order not to have too many regrets near the end.
Hello Eric, Such a meaningful post that must resonate with everyone who is reading it. At this stage of my life, I have been dealing with a huge amount of family records and photos (dad was a professional photographer – so there is a LOT!). I am doing the things you have said here, and have more planned so my only offspring will not drown in it!
Wonderful essay. My wife for a brief spell worked for a firm called “History Factory.” It specialized in memorializing large corporations by curating their archives and producing videos based on eyewitness’s memories. We should all have a History Factory.
I so enjoy these Sunday gems. Hope you choose to publish these as a collection!
Hey, what a great Sunday read, I found it quite fascinating, thank you, although I’m sorry for your loss it must have been quite something going through those boxes!
I too have loads of stuff I’ve squirrelled away over the decades, paintings I’ve done I’m pleased with, some I should dump, paintings and Art by people I admire sit on my walls as do hundreds of books and some valuable pieces of pottery, some I even made in another life, but loads I’ve bought that caught my eye.! But…..
What to do with it all?
I won’t be having a clear out anytime soon, I enjoy my art possessions I’ve collected and I will continue to until the end, and I just hope someone will enjoy them even without knowing their worth, it’s all about loving what you see, or touch as in sculpture.
I just hope it doesn’t all end up in a skip!
Eric, thank you for writing so eloquently about your experience with the huge responsibility of settling matters after the death of your dad. I lost my 90 year old dad in October, and became the executrix of his will. My dad also owned his own business and was a wonderful portrait artist and drummer. Going through all of his boxes filled me with gratitude. He left behind a legacy of love and creativity that lives inside all of his children and grandchildren. I hope to leave the same with my descendants and friends.
Every day I receive so many emails. It’s impossible to read them all and still have a life, but I do tend to read yours all the way through. They are so heartfelt and poignant. This one especially.
I remember the moment when a friend asked me to do something and I told her I was too busy, with work. I realized that my priorities had gone askew, and that over time my friends had quit calling. It seems like people now equate being busy with being important. It’s time to slow down and enjoy our friends, our families, and ourselves. Thank you for this important reminder.
Loved this! So so true about paths imagined- and reality! It happened big time to me and painting .. medically had to almost completely give it up! But that lead to creating a biz and a legacy , and now I am back painting tons! Almost 40 years later!, And it was all good!
Just signed up for Fall Volor! Excited….
Hi, I am a watercolorist, been painting for 35 years or so…I have accumulated tons of paintings framed and not. I have an Inn in Tucson Arizona, where I have it up for sale. On all the walls my paintings are, sold quite a few…not for a lot, but guests have bought them. I do not want to leave them, so not sure what to do with my paintings. Mostly birds, animal faces and seascapes. We just bought a home on the beach in Rocky Pte,, Mexico…where I have hung all my sailboat and sea animals. I am shy, I guess what I need to do is get a website and market the paintings, I am painting a wolf that I found in a magazine now. Once I free myself from this Inn, I want to travel to Europe and paint, and build a studio on the beach next to my beach house. My daughter says my home looks like a museum, I have collected lots of stuff through the years.
I’m sorry for your loss and can empathize with your experience. loss does cause introspection. life throws difficult things at us and often they’re not our fault. I’ve stood up for principles which turned into a cathartic release of a burden in some ways. art has been my savior throughout this and many artists have been incredibly kind and perceptive. my childhood dreams of learning more about american landscape for example have come via artists and their skills honed to perfection representing such extraordinary drama.
Sometimes a woman finds she must report being bullied and when regulators fail to get off the fence she might continue. in raising awareness of being bullied I have been given support from complete strangers. I’ve tried and now I see other women saying give up, put on some lippy smile and forgive. Nothing has changed in a lifetime. I’m not so sure I should stop trying to protect others, but life must be a balance of the good and the not so good.. Thank you for your lovely posts, clearing my Mother’s house brought back such happy memories, we forget how much our parents wanted for us, how careful their love really was.
another gem Eric!
I remember cleaning out my father’s memorabilia and wondering why each piece of paper or item was important to him. I was also very aware of whether or not he would consider each part of “family history” or an invasion of his personal space. I shredded many papers and I hope I was able to discern the difference. From the remainder, I compiled several scrapbooks, one each for his grandchildren. Will they mean the same to them as they meant to me…unlikely. I just felt it was important to pass along what he felt was important to his life and to preserve his memory for them. Thank you for sharing such a personal part of your life with all of us. I hope and pray that the pain of loss is lessening with each memory that sweetens with time.
So well said, sorry for your loss and Thank you. I need that.