When Changing My Mind Changed my Life

Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it could be as well to say the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.” – Lillian Hellman, Pentimento (Detail from Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist”)

Can you see it? The shadow of a woman’s face? The blues of Picasso’s period have tended to fade, exposing another layer underneath the later one. That’s “pentimento.” 

We are the sum of all the people we have been. All the decisions we have made, or not made. All the failures and successes. All the wisdom and all the foolishness.

We don’t need to be artists to look at Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” detail, with its shadow of a woman’s face peeking out, to nod knowingly. We understand perfectly just how and why changing one’s mind is a given.

I’ve just begun watercolor painting, and as a naturally ungifted artist-wanna-be, I am, not surprisingly, finding it to be a huge uphill climb. My mistakes and my changes of mind are painfully visible underneath the added layers of paint that I hoped would cover them up. (Hint: in watercolor painting, ain’t gonna happen!) In watercolor painting, there’s little time to change your mind once the paint has been put to paper.

How many times in any of our lives have we changed our minds? How many changes turned out to be consequential? Life altering? And how many were lesser ones that changed very little?

My elderhood is full of the kinds of memories that have their roots in those times that I changed my mind. Some are more welcome than others, to be sure. Some I regret, of course. Some have defined my life.

“This is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for once, what is there for now.”- Lillian Hellman, Pentimento

“What was there for once” is the work of our elder years. We can look at all that was “once” and see where each major change of mind changed the trajectory that our lives might have taken. It’s a fearsome work sometimes, but continuing it is the way that we eventually make peace with ourselves in our elder years. 

I look at “what is there for now” and I’m awash with gratitude Some of those changes of mind were scary beyond belief. And I made them without having a clue about where they would lead. But I made them anyway.

Changing our minds is part of the flow of life. We sure won’t always do it perfectly. But hopefully, along the way, we learn how to be wiser about what is most important. We can even discover that we’ve learned a resilience that we didn’t know we had.

At 78, I can glimpse some of the shadows of the “once” that was younger Martha. I can see the confident and oh-so-serious little child and the less confident, awkward adolescent. They’re still there inside me, silently reminding me of  where I started. Of how very young I was then, and how very sure that I would always have my happy ending.

The uncertain young wife who didn’t know how to cook still lives in me. The insecure young mother who loved her sons so much that she feared being wrong about everything and ruining their lives is there. The middle-aged wife and mother who dove into graduate school to inhale her love of music, despite the pre-feminist message that said that she shouldn’t be doing it…is there.

The shadow of the divorced seminarian is there, and so is that of the  plucky new pastor who had so much to learn but who was nonetheless so earnest.

I cherish the shadow of the wife who appeared for a second time at age 50, who brought the experience of all her faults and all her insights to the marriage. And who brought the passion of true love and the devotion of the committed.

They and all the others are still the shadowy forms that remind me of where I began, where I’ve traveled, and how often I have changed my mind. And changed my life.

They all live in a heart that sees how many times I’ve regretted some of the changes of mind, but also how many times I’ve chosen to honor the paths that I was meant to take.

We are all the sum of who we have already been, right?

We have all been at times broken and repaired, hopeful and hopeless. We’ve searched for our place, finding the places where we were meant to be: growing and changing, failing and succeeding, leaving behind broken hearts and giving other hearts saving grace. This has been all of us.

For those of us who are elders now, our edges have softened if the regrets have been acknowledged. And forgiven. The journey has not been an easy one, but it has been well worth the trip.

And of course, who we are today becomes the future shadow, peeking out of her hiding place. Who will I remember when I’m 88? Who will be my shadow then?