Some people have a junk drawer, filled to the brim with odds and ends of all sorts. If you go perusing, you may find a solitary Band-Aid or a pen that’s been chewed on and doesn’t work anymore. Or a hidden individually wrapped chocolate bar that was from Halloween three years ago may mysteriously reappear within it. I don’t know about you, but even this organized gal can’t seem to keep her junk drawer following suit. It’s always a mess and always needs a good cleaning.
For some, the collection of nonsense and leftovers stops at a single drawer in the kitchen, laundry room or in a serving table. But, I’m embarrassed to admit, that when we moved into our current home, my junk drawer expanded quite a bit, and now has taken over an entire spare bedroom. What started as a room to collect toys, games, clothes and other tchotchkes has evolved into “the room that we do not speak of” since it’s filled to the brim with items to sort and sale in our virtual yard sale. You never know what you are going to find in this room, and this particular day was proof of that.
It had been one of those days. You know, the ones where the kids must have your attention at all times. No matter what I needed to do, I was forced to postpone anything other than being in the same room with my three energy-ridden littles. For some, this would be a welcomed invitation to cozy up on the couch with a comfortable blanket and pop in movie after movie. Oftentimes, that sounds more than enjoyable to me. But this particular day, I felt the need to be productive. What could I do productive while still fulfilling their needy requirements? I decided to unleash the beast, open the door to the forbidden room, and begin sorting items to get rid of.
I found toys that had never been opened. They were vying for the attention of someone, but my kids were no longer interested. I found piles of clothes that had suddenly seemed to shrink; it was that or I had to accept that my kids were growing by the day. As I pulled items out to inspect and determine what to do with each, I found a toy car that the boys decided to fight over. Thank heavens a second toy resurrected from the abyss so that each would be able to have their own. Since the boys each got a refurbished toy to occupy them, I decided to look for something exciting for my daughter to enjoy. Pile after pile I was left with nothing; that is until the most ordinary and unexpected item emerged.
A paint by number set. I swear, I had never seen this set before that moment. Not sure where it came from but thankful that it appeared, I eagerly took it to my little girl for her to dive in to. The picture looked easy and made us all smile — two dogs sitting in a pale by the water. Of course my 6-year-old could tackle it! I ripped open the cardboard holding the kit together to find a maze of number combinations and little predetermined blocks awaiting to be filled in with the limited paint we were given.
Gulp. I smiled so as to not show my sense of nervousness to my daughter, hopeful that her excitement wouldn’t waver. But inside I was having to lift my jaw up off the ground. A child could do this? Ha! Yeah right. A 36-year-old mom couldn’t even tackle this, is what I thought to myself. I began mixing her paint and giving her directions, but within moments she softly asked if she could join her brothers with a game of racing cars instead.
Her kind spirit wouldn’t speak outloud what my mind was thinking. How in the world would one be able to complete the painting task at hand? My daughter waved her white surrender flag early, but something within me couldn’t put that $5.99 kit in the garbage. Instead, it was like the set challenged me to a duel. Who will win? Me or the canvas? Challenge accepted. I lifted up the paint brush and began. Each miniscule brush stroke was proof that I was in for much more what I expected.
The first challenge was to understand the color combination key. I had been given six small pots of paint, and yet none were the right shade of blue for the water or green for the grass. After rereading the instructions countless times, I learned that 1/4 didn’t mean a fourth; it meant equal part mixture of the color numbered one (which was white) and the color numbered 4 (which was tan). I began mixing, but quickly grasped that I better be prudent in doing so since the painting was much larger than the small tub of paint I was given.
The second challenge was to hold the paint brush in the precise angle to fill in a spot no bigger than a pencil lead tip with paint while not painting over the next color combo code given. In the beginning, I was precise, but after several attempts, I realized that the challenge I was being charged to do was impossible. I hit a fork in the road, and I had to make a decision. Do I give up and toss this activity that was never meant to have taken over my time or was I to give in and decide that the only way to accomplish it was to stop trying to stay in the lines, and instead, live a little and do it my way. I opted for the latter; I was too far in to surrender.
The hours passed by. Yes, I said hours and I wasn’t even a quarter of the way complete. I paused to reflect on the outcome thus far of this activity that had turned into a tool to drain me of my productive time. When I looked closely at each brush stroke, it looked like my 5-year-old had taken the brush and painted at his leisure, pointless and eager. It didn’t look special or even adequate. I decided to take a photo to text my mom so that together we could laugh at the horrendous art project I had underway. It was only then — in looking at my paint by number canvas as a photo — that I saw it.
Wow. The water was more than sporadic variations of blue hues and white highlights. The color combination made the water appear to be moving, and the highlights gave a glimpse of the sun reflecting off the crests. While I hadn’t finished one of the two dogs, I had made progress on the black Labrador pup in the painting, which originally looked to me like a mod podge of black variations. But from this perspective — one where I could step back and observe, I could see the pup’s sweet eyes and gentle expression. He was patiently awaiting the rest of him to be painted. There, as I gazed at the picture of my painting, I felt like the pup was talking to me … inspiring me to persevere, even though the rest of me wanted to toss the canvas in the garbage.
I put the photo down and when I picked up the canvas, holding the puppy and his friend in my hands and reflecting on the hours I had spent that day on bringing them to life, I realized that this unexpected kit was strategically placed into my life on that particular day not for my daughter to complete, but for me to. It was purposeful, as is most things that happen in life, and it was just what my soul needed.
As I gazed into the puppy’s eyes, I realized that my struggle that day wasn’t really with the paint by number canvas. I was struggling with life and the competing priorities I was faced with. What deserved my attention most? What should I prioritize? How could I not let a ball drop? How could I grow two of me to get it all done? The answer lied in the learnings that I walked away from working on the paint by number. Call me sleep deprived — or even crazy — but it was as if the canvas had life lessons to deliver, and once I was open to hearing them, I heard them with such clarity.
Don’t give up. Later that night when I showed my husband my hard work for the day, he quickly stated: “I would have given up on that after the first few strokes.” Believe me, I wanted to too. But after I began, I realized I was invested and giving up just wasn’t something that I could do. The paint brush couldn’t be pried from my hand. I had to finish. Just because something is tough doesn’t mean you should surrender to it. In fact, it’s when you persevere that true triumph happens.
Stop coloring by someone else’s rules. I don’t know the artist that created this masterpiece, but quickly I realized that if I were to finish and not have a panic attack before doing so, I would have to stop coloring by someone else’s rules. I would need to create my own. If I accidently painted over the directions for another spot, my intuition had to be invited to kick in and give me a color to try. If I painted outside the lines, that is okay, for once the painting was complete, no one would see the lines anyway.
Focus on each move. Hold back from getting worked up at all you still have to do, and focus on the move at hand. Someone once asked me if I knew how hard it would be to write and publish a book — how many years it would take to accomplish such a monumental task — would I have done it. I quickly answered, no, without giving my response a second thought. It was true through … and I felt the same way about this measly paint by number. If I knew the hours of time I would invest, I would never have found the time to do it. But looking back, I was proud of my accomplishment thus far, and I was definitely proud of my book journey as well. To keep moving forward, though, I needed to focus on the move at hand … and the small minuscule outlined space I needed to paint next.
Take a step back. As I write this, I find myself taking a moment to take a deep breath and reflect on all that I’ve done in my short time on this earth. The dreams that I had as a kid and those that I still have today. The family that I’ve built and the kids that I continue to shape (and who continue to shape me). When I take a step back, I can see that all of the long nights and unforeseen obstacles were a part of a larger plan, one that brings me to this very moment. Each move had purpose and in retrospect, doesn’t seem as difficult as it likely was at the moment. The same was true with my canvas. When I pulled back and looked at the picture of my painting, I could see the whole and realize that the sum is definitely greater than the individual parts. It was good. It was beautiful. And so am I.
For years I thought Forrest Gump’s mom knew the answer to life — that life was like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. But that day I realized that really, life is like a paint by number, each stroke has purpose and is meant to help create a beautiful tapestry that makes you you.