Becoming a Contender

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Sometimes the most painful experiences in life drive us to what is most joyful. When we realize this about something in our own life, it might lead to some guilt. My own example is how my husband's death led me to write more and find such pleasure and comfort in doing so. So guy plus life cut short equals gal writing more. Doesn't seem like a fair equation, and it isn't. But I guess what I'm getting at is that really anything in our life that we deem sad, tragic and untimely will never be "fair" in our eyes. So then it is important -- essential even -- to create meaning, fulfillment and timeliness from that life event. It can right the listing ship. It can bring back joy.

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We all have our satchels of sadness. We sling them over our shoulders and trudge forward. Sometimes the bags can be quite heavy but hopefully become lighter with time and perhaps a bit of an adjustment in how the bag rests on our shoulders. A part of lightening that load is when you are able to look around and acknowledge all the many satchels people are carrying. About a year after Charley died, my friend and neighbor Linda Westfall lost her son Pepper. He was 34 and Linda's only son. Pepper was all energy, emotion and impulsivity, and Linda devoted her life to worrying about him along with loving and caring for him.

Linda and I had been neighbors for a handful of years, and she was a part of what Charley had christened the Grande Dames of Park Avenue. This group acquired its name not because it was a club or a clique that lunched together, but because it was made up of women who had lived lives on Park Avenue and who were pragmatic, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, interesting people. Linda had worked hard while raising three children -- two girls and a boy -- following her divorce. Then she had met and married Steve and had her fourth child -- a little later in life, but with the same amount of fun and humor. She was magic with kids. Not syrupy sweet and overseeing a spotless house with fresh-baked cookies in the oven. God no. With Linda, it was art and crafts and the celebration of Dr. Seuss's birthday. A Grande Dame, as Charley had said.

So Linda has been many things. She was the daughter of an Indianapolis ophthalmologist-but-should-have-been-an-artist, and she was a student at Broad Ripple High School where her art teacher Mr. Clark got her a scholarship for figure drawing at Herron Saturday School. She has been a dreamer who always thought she would be an artist and live deep in the woods. She has been an employee, a single mother, a wife, and a grandmother. Although the one thing that Linda truly had always wanted to be was an artist.

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She found that there were certain people and events that gave her permission to be one. When Linda turned 50, her husband bought her a set of oil paints and a "really crappy easel." After working on an oil of her daughter, Betsy, Linda walked across the street to get artist Julia Wickes' opinion on the piece, and Julia "treated it like an actual painting." The more Linda did art, the more she had to do art. And with the feedback she received and some of her works being purchased, Linda now is an artist, or as she says, "I'm a contender."

Linda's studio is housed in a small, carpeted upstairs bedroom in her Park Avenue home. It has her large desk, an easel (no longer "crappy") and an enormous framed bulletin board with photos, quotes, doodles and art. Pepper is on that board in the way of photos and his drawings on paper plates. He is above Linda's desk, a portrait from years ago when he modeled at the Indianapolis Art Center. When Linda works on her encaustic or cold wax paintings, she can look up, over and around that room and there he is. Linda likes that. She needs that. Immersing herself in her artwork in that simple studio allows her to become "the contender" -- in that room and beyond its doors. Because of it, her ship can right itself and sail onward.

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