This past week I’ve been reminded that life is both short and precious. I found out yesterday that an old friend from college passed away. It felt strange and sudden especially because just the day before I had liked one of his Facebook posts advocating for peace. His post precipitated a minutes-long daydream of remembrance. I remembered sitting in his dorm room with him freshman year listening to obscure post-punk bands together. Bonded by a love for music. My mind reviewed every thought and memory I had of this sweet and kind friend of mine. Then the next day I heard the news. He was gone.
Simultaneously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what that must be like for the people living there. The terror. The loss. Not just lives lost but also art, culture, stories, memories. Important and beautiful things we can’t have back.
Inevitably, I found myself staying up and going through old photos of a trip to Ukraine that I took in February 2009. Among them was something I had forgotten about and which still astonishes me today. In the apartment where we stayed was a print with the words in english: “Saratoga Spring, NY”. The town where I went to college. The town where I hung out with my once friend, Ian, who passed away last weekend.
This whole world, we’re all connected.
My strongest memory of Ukraine was meeting an older painter and his sculptor wife in their shared basement art studio. As I descended the dark stairs into the basement with three older men all speaking Russian behind me, my mentor joked, “Katie, this is the part where we sell you into slavery.” I laughed nervously, knowing that wasn’t actually going to happen, but also wondering where I was and who exactly I was about to meet! In truth, the artist I was about to meet, “Soika”, would give me advice that would change my life forever. I sat down across from the old man at a table, his pale, icy blue eyes piercing right through me as he leaned his elbows down and began to speak. My mentor softly translated from Ukrainian: “Paint with your heart and your hands,” he said. “Don’t worry or think too much about whether or not your work will sell, that will ruin it. Just paint with your heart and your hands.”
Back to Ian. I’ve been glued to his Facebook profile, reading all the kind words that everyone has to say about him. And other than the praise for how kind and gentle of a soul he was, there is one refrain that really stands out. Ian told everyone he loved them and gave them a big hug each and every time he said goodbye to them. He did this with his co-workers at the end of work shifts. He did it in text messages with friends, and in person. He lived with a full heart.
So the message I’m getting this week is to live with your heart. If you paint, then paint with your heart. If you don’t paint, just do whatever it is that you feel called to do with your heart. If you have a friend or loved one then greet them with your heart. Spend time with them with an open heart. And each time you part, give them a hug, and say goodbye to them with your heart. Spend less time upstairs in your head. You’ll be glad you did.