Convergent Losses, Invisible Strings

John Lennon reminded us that life happens when we’re busy making other plans. Today, I was similarly reminded that life continues, even when we’re busy grieving the loss of it; that love is both the foundation of grief and the way through it. 

Lisa and I agreed to meet at a beach halfway between where we each live. I’d walked the same stretch of beach countless times and thought I knew roughly what to expect, anticipation stacked loosely by experience. I was right to predict the easy rhythm of conversation with an old friend, the gentle acknowledgement of Lisa’s past and pending losses, my own healing grief. But I could not have imagined the surprise to come, or the feelings evoked.

After walking, talking, and letting the low-tide expanse fill our hollow places, we were greeted by a yellow lab and two women sitting on a bench near the parking lot. The dog calmly approached and honored me with several mature dog kisses, deliberate and measured. She then turned to Lisa, offering her a similar greeting. “What a sweetie,” I called to the women on the bench. “I recently lost my dog.” They smiled, understanding. 

We briefly chatted about some related details – how old my dog was when she died, how old their dog is now, where we all live – before one of the women added that this was originally her son’s dog. She pointed to the memory plaque behind her on the bench, “This bench is in memory of my son.” We could see he died from melanoma when he was only 37 years old. “Wear sunscreen,” she added.

Turning back to the dog, the woman smiled and said, “This is Chapin.” Lisa and I looked at each other, mouths open, before I explained, “That was my dog’s name too! She was also a yellow lab.” What are the chances?

Now, I believe in coincidence. I don’t think EVERYthing is a sign or filled with special meaning. As Freud famously said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But some things feel like signs. Or at least feel bigger than what is immediately apparent, which is sometimes pretty big already. This was one of those times. Not only because I felt my Chapin’s love in the other Chapin’s kisses, even before I knew they shared a name. But because the random meeting of mostly unrelated humans revealed an otherwise hidden connection – shared loss and deep love. And what’s bigger? Except to recognize and share in the vulnerability of being present to it.

Lisa had earlier said she was due to get home where her mother, awaiting another cancer treatment, was taking care of Lisa’s nearly blind dog. Still, we lingered in the parking lot, first with our new friends, then with each other. I’d brought Lisa a painting to borrow, a painting I hoped would offer soothing energy for her and her family during a challenging time. We looked at it together for a bit, then hugged goodbye.

It was only after we parted that I felt overcome, washed through by a feeling hard to name. My eyes filled as I pulled away from Chapin Beach and remained so as I drove along the beach access road, but my vision was sharp enough to notice the other Chapin and her two companions walking along the beach in the distance. I stopped briefly to take a picture, a visual reminder of the threads that had briefly connected us: grief, love, dogs, and the beach they were named after. I was newly overwhelmed by another wave of feeling, more expansive than the low tide beach, something like the inhalation of clouds, lifting my grief like a helium filled balloon.

So many of the best things are difficult to explain and seem reduced by the telling. Such moments of gnosis are rare, or at least they have been for me, even as I am aware I’ve been long searching for that very thing – the palpable awareness of something bigger that lives in and connects everything, the invisible strings made visible.

Though I miss my dear Chapin. And Lisa grieves the loss of her baby, just as the woman on the bench still cries for her lost son. Although I wonder, as we all do, how to go on after losing and whether love is worth the price. I feel the tug of so many seen and unseen connections, and know I am held in their braided net. And that is enough to keep me daring, heart open, to love again and deeper still.

Are You Willing To Risk It All?

For those of you who aren’t painters, I want to tell you this secret. To be a painter – even an amateur one like me – you also have to be a gambler. Painters have to be willing to lose, repeatedly, until a painting is finished.

Every time I make a painting, I reach a point where I must put everything on the line, bet it all on the next brushmark. And many times, I lose.

Now, I’m not a gambler in any other way. The only slot machines I ever remember playing were the ones I visited at the Las Vegas airport en route to the Grand Canyon. I didn’t win. Lottery tickets tempt me sometimes. But the potential jackpot is less compelling than the greater likelihood of losing. I’ve never considered myself particularly lucky.

Instead, I prefer a sure thing if I can get it. I am a creature of routine and sameness for this reason. I know what I like and try to maximize my chances. Maybe I just like control. Don’t most of us?

But painting is never a sure thing. It’s a practice of uncertainty and risk. Painting is always a gamble. 

The first brush strokes come with low stakes. There’s a lot less to lose when so little has been invested. But as a painting progresses, so increase the moments of possible ruin. With each new brush stroke, the razor’s edge becomes thinner.

Yes, mistakes can be corrected and even Bob Ross style happy accidents may add life to a painting. But I can tell you it’s not as easy to fix a painting as you might think, especially not if you want to preserve some precious part you’ve attached to. Changing one thing often creates a domino effect of other needed adjustments. This is doable. In fact, better paintings often result. But there is almost always something lost. And it is a gamble. The losses may never be recouped by the final bet.

When you look at a painting, there is typically no hint of the artist’s sweat, or that razor’s edge in view. You decide if you like it or not, and move on. You don’t see the paintings that have been tossed, scraped down, or sanded away, sometimes after countless hours of attention. But the artist remembers. The artist can’t separate the painting from the process of making it.

Maybe there are painters out there who don’t identify with what I’m saying at all. I’d love to know YOUR secret! And I’m aware there are ways of painting that make outcome more predictable. Still, I recently heard that Anne Packard once threw one of her paintings into the ocean. I know the struggle is real, even for great painters!

And I know the paintings I’ve wanted to throw into the ocean are often the ones I become most attached to. I don’t throw away the ones I don’t like. Instead, I let them rest where they taunt me until I have the courage to go back and try again. These are the ones I suspect others won’t value the same way I do; these are the ones that contain a bigger piece of my heart.

I don’t really like gambling. I hate to lose, especially in a contest with myself. I’ve had enough loss in my life already. But I am a painter, which requires me to be a gambler. I keep painting. Because sometimes I win. And only because I am willing to try again.

And sometimes I even understand: What is meant to be kept, can never truly be lost.

And sometimes I even know: we only find out what is truly possible, when we are willing to surrender everything we have attached to.

Are you a gambler? Are you willing to release the things that hold you back for the possibility of something greater?


Here are a few recent paintings that were saved from the trash.

This painting sat in my closet for a year before I pulled it out and painted over most of the original painting. The darker blue at the bottom was once the sky and that is the only part I didn’t touch.
This is another painting that sat in my closet for a bit. Now that I think about it, the sky in this painting was once the ground also. Seems to be a repeated theme!