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Life-Changing Moments: Only Recognizable in Hindsight

You don't typically know a life-changing moment until you're years past it, often when someone asks an innocuous question about something in your present that has you following all the tiny clues back to the moment in time that led to now, a moment that--at the time--may have seemed meaningless, but has, in fact, been the launchpad of your entire trajectory.

What we are in the middle of now is, by anyone's estimation, life-changing. All we can talk about is how much our life has changed and, for some, the parts of that change we don't want to let go.

And yet, I wonder how much it will fundamentally shape our lives. I'm not arguing that it won't change our behaviors (my god, Oklahomans still store their cups face down in the kitchen cabinets as a generational hand-me-down from the Dust Bowl). And I am deeply curious to watch how my children will be shaped by this block of time that feels suspended for them--their childhoods happily playing out in the backyard while their parents furiously work on their laptops inside.

But I've noticed that when people declare something will fundamentally change your life, it rarely does. And yet, moments that seemed almost mundane--or at least forgettable--are the very ones that launch us in ways we could have never expected.

In my small, rural hometown, students had the privilege of being taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade art by Ms. Mack. She was short, as was her black, spiky hair, and she wore sterling silver jewelry, faded jeans, and walked like she was constantly listening to music (a cross between a swagger and a bounce). She wasn't cold, but she also wasn't warm, which is what made her very well-suited for junior high schoolers and their drama.

She was a brilliant artist and an innovative educator. She'd have us beading on looms one day, firing clay masks in kilns the next, tie dying felt, painting on canvases, and drawing until our fingers were black with charcoal. I loved her classes and being around her, but more than that, I loved what I was able to produce. She somehow made me feel like I, too, was an artist like her; talented and skilled.

I found myself drawing constantly. I doodled all over newspapers, my school notes, and anything else I could get my hands on. My parents even bought me a drafting table for Christmas so I could have a dedicated space to draw to my heart's content.

And then.

Ms. Mack left. Suddenly. I don't remember the details around her departure, but it became clear that after we returned from Christmas break of the 8th grade, we'd have a substitute for the rest of the year.

It didn't help that the substitute--whose name I don't even remember--was the opposite of Ms. Mack in every way. She was matronly, a grandmother of many, and walked as if she'd never heard a tune in her life. There was rumor she, too, was an artist, but I couldn't picture it. All I could envision was her painting a bunch of still life bowls of fruit. And even those probably came with connected plastic paint pots and corresponding numbers on the canvas.

One day she announced to the class: "Draw anything you want." My hand raised. She eyed me.

"Like, no theme? No specific technique? Just draw anything?"

"Anything," she said cooly, as if I wasn't understanding what a gift I had been given.

But this wasn't a gift. It was laziness. Ms. Mack wouldn't have stood for such bullshit. She would have instructed. She would have taught us a technique and then would have spent days helping us get it down before releasing us into the wild of our imaginations. To "draw anything you want" was essentially saying, "I don't care."

I grabbed a box of pastel chalks and decided to recreate an image I had recently seen: a Native American woman wrapped in a large green blanket. I worked hard for the hour of class and had managed to turn my anger with the substitute into something I was quite proud of. The blanket had movement and richness, and I felt a story was told with one striking image. As the bell rang, I walked over and handed it to her.

"What is this?" she asked, eyeing the paper with sheer confusion.

"It's a Cherokee woman walking with a blanket around her," I replied, my brows furrowed.

"I can't tell that's what that is," she shrugged, studying it.

"Okay...?" I said, embarrassed that my eyes felt hot.

"I don't know if I accept this," she said.

"You said to draw anything," I said, whispering.

"Right. But if I can't tell what this is, I'm not sure how I'll grade this." And with that she waved me on to grab the next drawing from the student behind me.

The next day in art class, the substitute gave us the same instructions: "Draw anything." I set to work on a perspective drawing of our main street, trying hard to master the movie theatre's marquee sign. When the bell rang, she said, "Meg? I need you to stay after for a bit." My heart started to beat faster, the mark of a good student who always assumes she's about to be in trouble.

The class filed out and I stayed seated. She came back to my desk. She was holding my drawing of the Cherokee woman.

"After our talk yesterday, I hung your drawing up in the teacher's lounge."

I smiled. Relieved.

"I wanted to see if anyone else could tell this was what you claimed it was," she continued.

My eyes lifted toward her and narrowed. The relief had vanished.

"And wouldn't you know, no other teacher could tell what it was either," she said with a smile. "So, when I say 'draw anything' please understand I'm not saying 'draw nothing.'"

I was humiliated.

Last week, someone asked me when I knew I wanted to be a writer. And for me, it has always been so clear--freshman year of high school. Only this time when I answered, I let my mind rewind the story a bit more to discover a new connection.

The year I found writing was the year after I lost art.

And until that realization, I hadn't thought about that substitute teacher since the 8th grade.

And yet.

Why did I never take a single art class in college? Why don't I still draw every day? Why did I never realize a light was extinguished before I fully recognized it was ablaze? How did I never see that after that moment--though while humiliating in the moment, was nearly forgotten within a week--I abandoned my deep love of producing art?

It's easy to look at our current crisis and declare this is a life-changing time for us all. And it is. It is having us rethink our priorities, redefine our work habits, slow down, speed up, be mindful, think of others, work harder to connect more deeply, and find gratitude where we can.

We can easily assume this is changing us, and even convince ourselves the change was forced upon us.

But here's the thing about the art class and the substitute teacher: My freshman year of high school, when I discovered writing, my English teacher was not very nice. She didn't like me, and she really didn't like my writing. She was dismissive, and kind of mean, and never encouraged me in a meaningful way.

And yet.

I took every writing class college had to offer.

So maybe your life changes not because of a moment in time, a crisis, or a single villain.

Maybe your life changes because you're ready to let go of one thing and grab hold of something else.

And all you've ever needed is the opportunity to do just that.


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