Read this excerpt and tell me what you think it adds up to:
Messages that give us feedback about life.
Interruptions that should cause us to reflect and think.
Signposts that direct us to the right path.
Tests that push us toward greater maturity.
Awakenings that keep us in the game mentally.
Keys that we can use to unlock the next door of opportunity.
Explorations that let us journey where we’ve never been before.
Statements about our development and progress.
John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward, 2000
Yep. I’m sure you’ve spotted it: M-I-S-T-A-K-E-S, as reframed by John Maxwell. But his is not your ordinary definition of the word Mistake. I know I’ve posted about this before, because the usual definition that a mistake is a failure, something you don’t, can’t recover from, has been such a huge looming presence in my life.
The portrait of Achan is a case in point. It remains unfinished. My real mistake here was not in the portrait — it was in declaring it a failure and abandoning it, when it was simply the first portrait I’d ever attempted. What was I thinking? that you don’t have to learn how to do something, you’re supposed to know it all along, from the beginning? Exactly.
I never did finish it — the 10-year-old girl is now a young woman approaching 30 — but I keep it to remind me that a mistake is only a mistake if it tempts you to failure, to giving up. I’m learning how to re-translate those words: mistake, failure. The new translation reads: C-H-A-L-L-E-N-G-E.
Not a threat, not a failure, not a danger: but an invitation to patience, compassion, perseverance —and excitement. You might say, the world turned upside down.
You continue to amaze me with your artistic talent!
So many of us were brought up (maybe inadvertently, maybe not) to strive for perfection. I remember my mother’s edict: Good, better, best, never let it rest, till your good is better and your better, best. I was red-penned constantly by school teachers and exhorted by priests and nuns to strive for perfection, while at the same time being told that I’d never, as a mere, flawed human, reach that state. I’ve come to feel that perfection is like happiness – as a state it’s elusive; as a practice it’s an adventure.
I find I can’t bold anything here in the comment box so you will have to picture the first letter of each statement as bolded…
Perseverance in the face of obstacles.
Eliciting help when you need it.
Realizing that a mistake is just an opportunity in error’s clothing
Finding some good in what you do.
Exercising your best (at the time) judgment.
Counting trying as part of achievement.
Telling yourself there are as many ways to succeed as there are opportunities to do so.
I’m going to adopt your reframing of the word Perfect and take it as a guiding mission.
I think most of us of our generation were brought up with the “good, better, best” dictum, or, as it was more frequently known in my household, “What happened to the other two points?” syndrome.
“Realizing that a mistake is just an opportunity in error’s clothing” — BRILLIANT!
Well done, Pauline. Freeing us from the fetters of perfectionism —
“When too perfect, lieber Gott böse.” Nam June Paik
There is some wisdom in these lines, ironic as they sound. A perfectionist to the core, I live well remembering it…
I’m not at all sure I’m clear about the meaning of Nam June Paik’s diktat: When everything is perfect, God becomes evil — ??????
Maybe it’s related, though, to one of my favorite “stories”: the rug makers in the Middle East always leave the last knot of their rugs untied, because only God is perfect —
simply put, perfection belongs to God. And only to God.
… I think Paik’s words translate into “God will be angry.” And yes, it must be the same idea as in the Middle East. I thought I heard somebody mention this in connection with Oriental wisdom. Thanks for reminding me.
God will be angry…
Yes, it makes sense of what Paik says, and yes, it is surely the same idea.
Very interesting. I’ve had the same approach to various computer stuff: That I’d be able to do it without learning! I’ve never read a manual for a cell phone or anything. That’s fine, because most often I’ve had fun in the process, but once it was sort of a mistake. Many years ago, I got Photoshop. So … I approached that with the same happy conviction that I’d sort it all out eventually. Well … I didn’t. Don’t think anybody does — it’s HUGE. So it just sat there for years, I felt bad because I knew it was good and I ‘couldn’t’ use it. Some time around 2008, I had an awakening and asked myself ‘what’s wrong with me … I have the greatest photo editor sitting on my computer and I don’t DO anything with it?!’ Started to learn and enjoyed it immensely. And this comment is turning into a blog of its own…
Can’t you take up on that painting again or is it too late??
Interesting to hear your experience with Photoshop — a formidable program, and a huge project to learn. You have a lot of courage, Rebekah, and a spirit of adventure.
The questions that propelled me toward painting are mostly answered.
I experienced what it felt like to handle brushes and pigments, I enjoyed the learning, I understand better the process when I look at paintings in a museum or gallery. I was good, it turned out — but the effort and commitment to become better were missing.
Where painting has pointed me is actually toward photography, or more accurately, back toward photography, which I’ve done for many years, but never valued properly.
Often the things that come easily and naturally to us aren’t properly valued precisely because they come easy. I’ve stopped fighting the flow, and started going with it.
(Next stop, California? 😉
Photography was new to me when I first bought the DSLR, three years ago. I’ve done pretty well, but don’t seem to have the ambition IN me, wanting to go further … to improve all the time. I just keep asking myself ‘what’s the point?’…. and yes, perhaps Hotel California 🙂
We’ll book two rooms 😉
I think you are spot on with your assessment. Mistakes are not failures, but possibilities – to learn. And challenges are good. And finally yes, when you are young you often think you know everything there is to know. And later find out that it might not quite be so. Thanks for sharing. We can all learn from each other.
“We can all learn from each other.”
That’s a lot of what blogging is about for me.
Incidentally, your photographs illuminate new possibilities for me, so thank you for them! As well as for your visit and comment.
This is such a fabulous and poignant post, not to mention a rather stunning portrait of which you should be proud!
Pauline said it for many of us who strove to be the best while knowing, because we were always told, that we would never be worthy of being the best. AMDG!
I do hope Achan (unfinished) sees the light of day!
You cite AMDG (to the greater glory of God, the motto of the Jesuits), which is usually interpreted as a perfection that none of us have much hope of achieving —
but I truly believe that God does NOT expect perfection of us, s/he knows us too well.
To do our best, to fail and try again — those are actions pleasing to deity, or so I believe.
Thanks so much, as always, Patti, for your thoughtful comments.
Exactly! But what may have been pleasing to the deity was not always pleasing to some of our more formidable teachers and betters. And ours was not to question!
(Please know I am not bitter and twisted with regret etc – I have had so much fun making some of my more memorable mistakes, others have been a perfect mess, if that is possible . . . !)
The idea of a “perfect” mess!
That tickles me, it makes my day (or actually evening, but whatever works) —
The perfect mess… This conversation reminded me of the end of “Zorba the Greek.” When the machinery they set up in months and months of labour collapses, all Alexis Zorbas says is, “Did you ever see something crash so beautifully?” I was impressed.
Me too, Tobias. Patti has STYLE!
I love that moment in the movie!
…actually I think that there are various kinds of mistakes. Those you can and will avoid the next time, a source of learning, of improving. You may say: The next time I am in that situation, I will pay more attention. (That’s how I learned a great deal of / about photography.)
And then there are big mistakes, those that can give your life a direction (good or bad, that stands to be pondered most of the times): If only I had not listened to that person. If only… “Had your life not taken the turns it did, we would probably never have met,” is what my wife once replied. Two sides to every coin, obviously.
Not that y’all need to be reminded… (picture a wide smile here)
Ah yes, indeed — your wife and my husband think along similar lines! 😀
It is true: every coin does have two sides. I wonder if we are really ready to accept that? Or even to recognize it?
(A Moebius strip is the only thing I know that has only one side — and it has to twist itself inside out to achieve that — another wide smile here)
One of the most liberating moments in my life was when I walked out of the ‘house of mistake and failure’ into the wild and wonderful world of imperfection; when I walk into nature that is so beautifully imperfect it’s perfect.
Strange that this discussion brings to mind the fiction writer Joy Williams. In a writing class someone asked her how she works. She said I write one well-crafted sentence, and then I write another, until I reach the end of the story. No rewrites? the student asked. No. I happen to think Joy Williams is one of the best contemporary fiction writers of our time, and under-read, and if I were her close friend I’d say, Really, Joy. No rewrites? From the way her work reads it’s one perfect sentence after another. . . I’m intrigued by this method of putting words on the page — not a scratchy draft re-drafted and re-drafted, cleaning up sentences in the second or third sweep, instead one sentence, crafted and punctuated. Then another. Then another. There’s imperfection in there. I know there is. It seems so beautifully open to imperfection that all there is is opportunity. Discovery. I think ultimately what Joy might have been trying to express was to let the story tell its self, one sentence at a time.
How does this relate at all with the original discussion? May be nothing more than a window into the odd world of my mind 🙂 I’ll let Suzuki Roshi bring me back around:
“So the secret is just to say ‘Yes!’ and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.”
No doubt about it: Suzuki Roshi always had a way with words. It’s a Zen thing — few words, so they have to count! The Korean Zen master Soen Sunim spoke of Don’t-Know Mind, which I would translate very much the same way. No old self, always beginner’s mind.
Hey, if this discussion brings us a glimpse into an open window of your mind, I for one am rejoicing!
Re: Joy Williams (whom I don’t know and will have to check out) — she is heavily into imperfection, in that all of her scratchy drafty rewriting and cleaning up is simply done one sentence at a time, instead of at the end.
As for no rewrites — I’m sure she is a scrupulously honest person! But I’m still reminded of H.M.S. Pinafore, when the Captain sings, And I’m never never sick at sea. Sailors: What never? Captain: No, never. Sailors: What never? Captain: Well —hardly ever!
Actually, Susan, I LOVE your “wild and wonderful world of imperfection”!
I found this post very moving – I don’t think this is a failure. Unfinished paintings are works of art regardless of being incomplete. They have a feeling to them that is unique because a human hand has played the role of casting the image to canvas. I can’t say the same for my photos – some can go straight to screen from camera with little involvement from me (though there are those that require a more creative approach). But, from experience, any photo or painting is open to reinterpretation – so there’s no such thing as a failure. Go on – give it a re-work 🙂
Thanks for the kind words, Martin.
I guess I used to feel as you do about photographs versus paintings. But now that I have much more seriously returned to photography — I see the role of the human eye as analogous to the human hand in the process. Even raw/RAW —-even BEFORE any recasting via Photoshop, etc. The eye rules.
I can only look through someone else’s eyes — through their painting or sculpture — or, especially, through their camera lens, see through to their vision.
Does it complicate things if I tell you that the portrait of A-chan (Japanese nickname) was originally a photo, taken by me. I loved the photo, it captured something elusive about young girlhood, about her, about freedom and glee — and I wanted to see if it would “translate” into paint. I’m sure it would have, well, perhaps it would have — but my technical skills weren’t equal to my vision. That vision was complete in the original photograph — So it was an experiment that didn’t work. That’s okay too, I think — one of the points of the post!!!!
Yes, I was probably a bit harsh on my photos 😉 The trouble is that in the case of my sports photos there isn’t time to go through the creative process of composing the photo except perhaps when capturing fans – all the creative work is in the cropping and processing after the event. My transport photography is a bit different – unless its a rare vehicle that has appeared unexpectedly or the Fire Brigade / Police on a shout – I usually have a shot planned and framed ready for when the bus / train shows up. Here, the creative work is very much done in the camera with the eye and just a little tidying may be required afterwards.
If you still have your photo – perhaps you could try painting the portrait again with the skills you have gained over the intervening period. Then you’d still have the incomplete painting to muse over 🙂 It’s clear from your post and comment that the photo and the person mean a great deal to you.
” It’s clear from your post and comment that the photo and the person mean a great deal to you.”
Well, that’s true! It was very special, my first trip to Japan with Achan and her mother and brother, and the photo captured for me both her youthful exuberance and the excitement of the whole trip.
I have a lot of photos from that trip, most very special — Japan liberated something in me without any effort! I’ll bet you know that feeling —
San Miguel de Allende in Mexico did the same thing —
So it isn’t about painting per se so much as it is about attitudes, about definitions. Like what failure is — what mistakes are — dead ends, or steps in a process.
I thank you very much for your thoughtful words and encouragement. You are always encouraging!
BTW your own work, then, is mostly capturing the moment as best as possible, then working on it afterward — except when it isn’t! 😉
I really do believe, Martin, it’s ALL creative. It’s always your eye, before, during, and after.
Thank you Judith – I too find your writings encouraging. You gave me some things to think about here and that is a very good thing. We get stale if we don’t question our work 🙂
For me that’s one of the joys of blogging — people are encouraging and offer brand new ideas or perspectives —- and stale kind of becomes impossible. That’s actually pretty neat, now that we come to explore it together!
I adore this definition of “mistake” – *and* your insight that the only real mistake in life is giving up completely.
“My” insight — with the helpful input of lots of blogging friends!!!!!
In my new yoga class, there are women who have obviously been doing this for a while. The instructor herself has for 30 years! And there I am – stretching and squishing my little body into these poses and trying to get air in my lungs at the same time. Somewhere I’m sure there is a voice that is saying I SHOULD know how to do this, and how ridiculous I look since I don’t. But I made a promise to myself that I would try this “new thing” without the self-critique. So, I’m ignoring the voice and about to actually ENJOY my 8th yoga class…make no mistake about it!
A big BIIIIIIG step —-
The 10-year-old girl is now 32. 🙂
I still remember the exact moment when you had taken the original photo in Hiroshima… hmm 22 years ago… “Unfinished” or “mistake” you may call it, but for me this is a priceless art work!! 🙂
I love the photograph, and I had such a clear vision of how I could transform it into a painting!
Except that I couldn’t, I didn’t have the technique to do it. But I can’t throw it away either — so I guess you’re right, it’s a priceless art work, because it’s a memento of a priceless moment!!!!