Contentedly Incomplete: On Life, Work, and Working It All Out

Last weekend, I went home to visit my family.  Lately, I’ve felt a change coming—a new adventure waiting for me, manifesting now only as the goose bumps riding my forearms.  Knowing that I might soon find myself far from my loved ones, I went home.  It rained all weekend—grey skies and even a surprise mid-May snowstorm. Consequently, most of our time was spent indoors, reading and cooking.  Saturday night, though, we went to dinner with an old family friend.  For the purposes of this article, I’ll call him C.  He is a sculptor, painter, wood-carver—essentially a jack-of-all-trades artist.

Walking through his home studio, I was overwhelmed.  Massive canvas-bodied, cubist faces and wonderfully warped, plush-cheeked stone angels were there to greet me amidst hanging blown-glass wind-chimes and bougainvillea.  Most powerfully, though, in this outpouring, this jumbled forest of creativity, there was everywhere a work unfinished.  Upon every counter, a book left open, its corners tagged and its spine worn weak.  Beside every couch, an easel held the beginnings of a new oil painting, watercolor, or woodcarving.

Coming to one sculpture that particularly grabbed hold of me, I asked C if the work—an incongruent face fashioned from a deeply figured turquoise hunk of stone—was finished.  He thought a moment, and then told me that no work is ever truly done.  He passed a finger patiently along the skin-soft rock, then locked my eyes. 

            I think completion is a form of dying, wouldn’t you say?

That’s the purpose of his life, C said. To have something for which he can wake up. Moving forward, I’ve realized there is wisdom in being contentedly incomplete.  If, each day, we do not roll up our sleeves and feel compelled to dig our calloused palms into the wet dirt of our dreams, passions, and ideas, have we not in some sense died? 

Whether we are writers or sculptors, engineers or doctors, I think it best we remember this truth.  That we live knowing we are part of a continuum, and despite our wildest efforts to advance from one accomplishment to the next, our work is never absolutely finished.  This is not to say that we should let our books go unwritten or our ideas settle, unfulfilled.  Rather, we should simply relish in the flux of it all.  Let our life’s work be as alive as we are.  This is tough, but there’s really no other option.  We can only embrace a life of endless, boundless creation, right up to our final moments. 

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