"That's not it at all!" I throw another canvas to the growing pile of failed paintings. I throw my hands in the air and give up. I take off my paint stained apron and throw myself onto my bed. I bury myself in my mess of pillows and blankets. I only stir when I hear a knock on my wall. I look up but find no one at my door. I knock on the wall near my bed in a pattern and my neighbor completes it.
My neighbor is Mrs. Carlile. She is a 87 year old widow that has been living in my apartment complex for as long as I have been here. We would often bump into each other in the early mornings before the day started in an attempt to beat the traffic of the busy city.
"Sorry if I woke you from your mid-noon nap Mrs. Carlile!" I shout through the thin dry wall separating us.
"You're okay dearie. Could you come over and help me with my television? The stupid thing is frozen again. I'll make some tea for us." She crows back.
"Is it on?" A moment of silence passed before she crowed back.
"Oh, that was it. Thank you dear. Do you still want to come over for tea?"
"Tea does sound lovely. I'll be right there." I rouse myself out of bed and knock on her door. I listen to shuffling feet as the old woman makes her way to the door and lets me in. I take a seat in the chair across from her.
"So that painting you are doing is not it at all I hear. Care to tell me your trouble with it?" She says as she sits down and takes a sip from her baby blue mug.
I laugh. "Well that's just it. It's supposed to be a self portrait but I can't seem to get my own face right. I know what my face looks like, I mean for Pete's sake I've had it for 24 years of my life I should know what I look like." This roused a laugh from her as she struggled to hold her tea still.
"Well that is certainly a problem that I cannot help but I think i could at least give some advice on the matter dearie." I sit up and listen carefully. "The image you are trying to paint is not the image that is showing correct?"
"That's going to happen in life sometimes. The plan you have in mind is going to change. Life is unpredictable. We have no control of what may and will happen. We can hope that life goes our way and sometimes it will, but more often than not we are going to be lost, stuck, and confused about what's next, however the biggest thing you have to do, is get up again. Never give up on your art. I had dreams when I was your age and I often regret not following them. you have the makings of something truly wonderful. Most people search their whole lives for a spark of something that makes them special but they often don't see that spark in themselves until they lose it."
"But how do I know this is my spark? How-"
"Because I can see it in you. My husband had the same glint in his eye when he whittled little figurines for our children. When I see you paint I see his glint in your eye. That's how I know. Now drink your tea. It's getting cold."
I sat and drank my tea as my mind wrapped around her words. We sat together for hours as she told me about her husband Elias. She showed me some of his figurines.
"This one is my favorite." She tells me as she hands me a beautiful wooden rose. "He gave this to me on our 50th anniversary. He spent a week working on it. He always told me he wished it was better. That the, petal is crooked, the stem is sharp, and the wood is too hard. He practically begged me to let him fix it, but I never let him. I always told him that it is perfect and that I wouldn't want it any other way." She wipes some tears away as she stares at the rose in my hand. "If he was here he would tell you to pick up your canvas and try again." She took the wooden rose from my hand and placed it on her mantle. "So go. Paint your heart out. But when it's done, I want you to show this old woman how well it turned out."
I smiled and kissed the top of her head. "Thank you." I bolted up and out the door in a flash. I went to my canvas and didn't even bother putting on my apron. I picked another canvas and looked into my mirror. Stared into my eyes and saw it. I saw that spark. I saw it shoot into flames as my brush hit the canvas. I sat on my stool for what felt like seconds but it was nearly days of work. Every imperfection fit into the piece like it was meant to be. When I finally set down my brush, I took in my canvas as if it was the first time I had seen art. My light brown hair that reached the center of my ears almost shimmered off the morning sun's light. My bright green eyes stared through me and into my soul. My once clean tan sleeveless shirt was now stained with every color imaginable and my painted self reciprocates that. The thing that made every other painting undesirable was the thing that brought me over the top.
My smile. In every other painting that was the thing that broke the painting. They all seemed forced or faked or even non-existent. but not this one. This one showed my joy of painting. It showed the world what I could do with some paint and a brush. I stared at it until the last of the paint dried, taking in the mass of color breathing life into the room. Without another second wasted, I fulfilled my promise to Mrs. Carlile. I knocked on her door and heard her shuffle quickly to answer it. Her smile was so bright that the darkness of the hall became as bright a star.
I gave her that painting the next day saying, "You're the reason I didn't give up my dream." Over the course of two years I made many paintings and sold even more. Every painting I didn't sell I gave to Mrs. Anne Carlile of apartment 183B. but if you ask her what her favorite painting is of mine. She will point at the one above her mantle. My self portrait. The portrait that is not quite right, but perfect in its own way.