I want to share the last chapter of a book I read called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie.
In your mind, conjure an image of the Mona Lisa. Visualize that masterpiece’s subtleties of hue and tone as clearly as you can.
Next, shift to the image of a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa. Envision the flat, raw colors meeting hard-edged, one against the other.
Now, let me relate a fantasy about masterpieces, paint by numbers and you. It goes like this:
Before you were born God came to you and said:
Hi there! I just dropped by to wish you luck. And to assure you that you and I will be meeting again soon. Before you know it.
You’re heading out on an adventure that will be filled with fascinating experiences. You’ll start out as a tiny speck floating in an infinite, dark ocean, quite saturated with nutrients. So you won’t have to go looking for food or a job or anything like that. All you’ll have to do is float in the darkness.
And grow incredibly. And change miraculously.
You’ll sprout arms and legs. And hands and feet. And fingers and toes. As if from nothing, your head will take form. Your nose, your mouth, your eyes and ears will emerge.
As you continue to grow bigger and bigger, you will become aware that this dark oceanic environment of yours–which, when you were tiny, seemed so vast–is now actually cramped and confining. That will lead you to the unavoidable conclusion that you’re going to have to move to a bigger place.
After much groping about in the dark, you will find an exit. The mouth of a tunnel. “Too small,” you’ll decide. “Couldn’t possible squeeze through there.” But there will be no other apparent way out. So, with primal spunk, you will take on your first “impossible” challenge and enter the tunnel.
In doing so, you will be embarking on a brutal, no-turning-back, physically exhausting, claustrophobic passage that will introduce you to pain and fear and hard physical labor. It will seem to take forever. But mysterious undulations of the tunnel itself will help squirm you through. And, finally, after what will seem like interminable striving, you will break through to a blinding light.
Giant hands will pull you gently, but firmly, into an enormous room. There will be several huge people, called adults, huddling around you, as if to greet you. If it is an old fashioned place, one of these humongous people may hold you upside down by the legs and give you a swat on the backside to get you going. All of this will be what the big people on the otherside call being born. For you, it will be only the first of your new life’s many exploits.
God continues: I was wondering, while you’re over there on the other side, would you do me a favor? “Sure,” you chirp.
Would you take this artist’s canvas with you and paint a masterpiece for me? I’d really appreciate that. Beaming, God hands you a pristine canvas. You roll it up, tuck it under your arm and head off on your journey.
Your birth is just as God had predicted, and when you come out of the tunnel into the bright room, some doctor or nurse looks down at you in amazement and gasps: “Look! The little kid’s carrying a rolled up artist’s canvas!” Knowing that you do not yet have the skills to do anything meaningful with your canvas, the big people take it away from you and give it to society for safekeeping until you have acquired the prescribed skills requisite to the canvas’s return.
While society is holding this property of yours, it cannot resist the temptation to unroll the canvas and draw pale blue lines and little blue numbers all over it’s virgin surface.
Eventually, the canvas is returned to you, it’s rightful owner. However, it now carries the implied message that if you will paint inside the blue lines and follow the instructions of the little blue numbers your life will be a masterpiece. And that is a lie.
For more than 50 years I worked on my paint-by-numbers creation. With uneven, but persistent diligence, I dipped an emaciated paint-by-numbers brush into color no. 1 and painstakingly painted inside each little blue-bordered area marked 1. Then on to 2 and 3 and 4 and so on.
Sometimes, during restive periods of my life, I would paint, say the 12 spaces before the 10 spaces (a token rebellion against overdoses of linearity). More than once, I painted beyond a line and, feeling embarrassed, would try to wipe off the errant color or cover it with another before anyone might notice my lack of perfection.
From time to time, though not often, someone would complement me, unconvincingly, on the progress of my “masterpiece.” I would gaze at the richness of others’ canvases. Doubt about my own talent for painting gnawed at me. Still, I continued to fill in the little numbered spaces, unaware of, or afraid to look at, any real alternative.
Then there came a time, after half a century of daubing more or less inside the lines, that my days were visited by traumatic events. The dividends of my noxious past came home to roost, and the myth of my life began horrifically to come unglued. I pulled back from my masterpiece-in-the-works and saw it with emerging clarity.
It looked awful. The stifled strokes of paint had nothing to do with me. They did not illustrate who I am or speak of who I could become. I felt duped, cheated, ashamed–anguished that I had wasted so much canvas, so much paint. I was angry that I had been conned into doing so. But that is the past. Passed.
Today, I wield a wider brush–pure ox hide bristle. And I’m swooping it through the sensuous goo of Cadminium yellow, Alzarian Crimson or Ultramarine Blue (not nos. 4, 13 or 6) to create the biggest, brightest, funniest, fiercest damn dragon that I can. Because that has more to do with what’s inside me than some prescribed plagiarisms of somebody else’s tour de force.
You have a masterpiece inside you too, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created, or ever will be. And remember: If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you.