One of my grandfather’s proudest accomplishments was self-publishing a book of collected quotes and anecdotes at his local printing store before self-publishing was even cool.
The spiral-bound book houses the wisdom of some of the most well-known minds to date, including individuals such as Socrates, Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, and the like. And, of course, my grandfather squeezed in a quote or two of his own between those of the greats whenever he could.
Growing up, I remember him sharing one quote with me in particular, over and over again. He would catch my young, wandering gaze, put a hand on my shoulder, and say, “Seeds of wisdom grow only in fertile soil. It’s in the book,” he would wink.
Even though I knew how much these bits and pieces of wisdom meant to him, I never really understood why he started collecting them – or writing his own – in the first place. It wasn’t until after he had passed away a few years ago that I decided I would dust off that fabled book of his from my bookshelf and read it from front to back for the very first time.
Over the course of an hour, I paged through each of the hand-selected quotes and anecdotes my grandfather had compiled over the years, and I began to realize that this book was much more than simply a compilation of wise words: it was a collage of who he was and who he wanted to be, as well as everything he had been before.
There was great vulnerability inside it all.
These were the words he had clung to – the words that embodied his greatest longings and fears in life, and the words that he had chosen to share with others in hopes that they would provide the same comfort and direction they had for him.
Near the beginning of the book, my grandfather writes, “Creativity is a necessary means of self-expression. Those who feel the need to create must do so, for that is the food that nourishes the soul.” And create he did.
Besides continuing to add to and revise his self-published book during his lifetime, my grandfather was also a composer – a title he had given himself, and yet a title that made up a large part of who he was, nevertheless.
For most of his life, my grandfather lived alone in an old white farmhouse that sat alongside a small creek that ran through his backyard. During the summers, he would tend to his vegetable garden and chop wood in preparation for the coming winter.
When the snow finally began to fall, he would sit at his prized second-hand piano that he had taught himself to play, warmed and uninterrupted, and he would pour his waking hours into composing symphonies reminiscent of the bygone classical composers.
As Thoreau writes, and my grandfather quotes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
My grandfather’s life was exactly this: a haven where he could pursue his passions without the distractions of the world, and where he could nourish his soul in the ways he knew best.
So often, in the busyness of our lives, we forget to pursue the things that are truly life-giving to us. We know that it would be nice to simply sit still and do something we enjoy for once, but instead, we find it easier to default to a life lived on auto-pilot.
Like an old VHS tape stuck on fast-forward, the minutes, then the hours, then entire days and weeks pass before our eyes without us even realizing that we’ve been drifting through all the moments that make life so meaningful.
There are the things that fill us up, and there are the things that drain us – and if we’re not careful, we can quickly find ourselves stuck in this perpetual cycle of “drifting,” too exhausted to pull ourselves out.
The solution to our chronic busyness isn’t necessarily isolating ourselves from the world like some kind of modern-day Thoreau, but I do believe that we can learn something from his philosophy on how to lead a more fulfilling life.
I recently rediscovered a quote from Pablo Picasso that speaks to this end: “Every child is born an artist. The problem is remaining an artist as the child grows up.”
In Picasso’s opinion, the beauty of childhood is being naive enough to create in excess without the fear of judgment or imperfection. Children live in a pre-rational world that’s driven by their imaginations and are entirely their own. They act upon their creative instincts rather than reason, and they wear their hearts proudly upon their sleeves, not knowing any better.
But Picasso also understood that as children grow up, they develop a budding awareness of the often demanding and unforgiving nature of our world. It’s this awareness that makes it difficult for them to continue embodying the free-spirited selves they've always been.
The question, then, isn’t whether or not we’re artists, because, at our core, we’re all artists, driven by our natural instinct to create in the ways that best express who we are.
The real question is whether we’ll allow the world to quiet this side of us — to let it exhaust us with a constant rush of things to do and places to be that might feel productive, but really just keep us from focusing on the things that actually fill us up.
My grandfather recognized the weight of this decision, and so he made an active effort each day to never let the world keep him from doing what he loved most.
As a gentle reminder, reclaiming your identity as an artist doesn’t mean you need to create on par with those around you. Oftentimes, it’s those very expectations that keep us from creating in the first place.
The truth is, you’re your own unique creation, and you have something to offer the world that no one else does. Remember that, and you’ll be well on your way to returning to the artist you’ve always been.