When I was 12, I noticed a sign on the window of a local store that advertised summer jobs berry picking for 12 year olds and older. As a newly minted 12 year old, I was excited to learn that I could answer an official "help wanted" ad and have a "real" job.
That first June summer Monday, on a typical overcast Portland, Oregon morning, at 5:15 AM sharp, wearing old clothes, not a lick of sunscreen, with a bag lunch containing no water—a can of “pop” I think—I waited for the bus, along with a few other kids around my age. We were picked up in a rickety school bus with dried mud on the floor and hauled out to some field on the outskirts of Portland for our daily 8-hour shift. (Our parents had no idea where we were or who we were with...can you imagine?). As I filled my buckets, row after row, day after day, moving from strawberries in June, raspberries in July (gratefully standing to pick which was infinitely easier on the back than bending to pick strawberries), and blackberries (thankfully, thornless) in August, my employment in the berry fields lasted four summers, the standard rate of 50 cents per bucket never increasing, although my competence as a picker certainly did.
Some mornings, when the alarm went off at 4:30 AM and it was rainy and dark, I cried. I didn't want to go. On the bus on our way to the fields, we passed clean, warm 7-11 stores and I fantasized about working in one of those places, where I didn't have to stick my arms into freezing cold wet bushes. However, once posted on my row, bucket tied to my waist, having picked that first berry, getting that first awful “plink” in the empty bucket out of the way, I cracked through lazy inertia. The sun rose, pop music from someone's radio could be heard playing across the rows, and the day disappeared. By the time I was 16 and I had a real, “real” job as a restaurant hostess, I gladly left my berry picking days behind me.
Fast forward 25 years and I find myself the parent of three 14-year-olds, the culture of what we would come to know as helicopter parenting firmly entrenched. I was puzzled and could not reconcile the independence I experienced as a 14 year old with the over-zealous level of supervision and enrichment activities that were expected of me as a parent. Wanting my children to learn about the value of hard work, but with the “horror of child labor” eliminated and living in a rural area where there was no safe way for my kids to ride into town on a bike, I became the “berry picking row boss” assigning my kids to rake and pick up grass piles, pull weeds, and paint the garage. Enrichment activities like dance, art, or sports camps were expensive, often filling months in advance, and cumbersome to orchestrate between three kids.
Later, as my own art career began to evolve, having learned about the plethora of enrichment available to kids—sports, music, fine art—I couldn't help but wonder how I might have become a better artist had I been exposed to some of those activities as a teenager instead of slogging away in the berry fields (of coure, conveniently forgetting that those kinds of options weren't readily available in the 70s).
Now, fast forwarding an additional 10 years, as a working artist, blessed with the abundance of opportunities to exhibit my work and gain so much inspiration from the excellence of the art work I see around me, I am also sobered by the commitment and daily hard work required to push myself to greater levels of competence. I have piles full of paintings that will never see the light of day and, setting the bar for myself ever higher, the pile keeps growing. The net result is that all of the enrichment that I might have experienced as a youngster, while valuable as a foundation, I'm sure, is not what is helping me now, painting daily and wondering if my result will be something for the “reject” pile or the “keep” pile.
I have not seen the movie, “True Grit”, but have heard much about it. The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, apparently make a distinction between hard work and grit. They use the example of two prison inmates– one with grit and one without. The one without grit will “work hard” to formulate a new plan for escape every week. But “a gritty inmate will tunnel his way out one spoonful of dirt at a time.” Further, the authors say, “Grit is tough because you don’t get the psychic payoffs that come with an exciting discovery or a shift in direction.You rarely get big wins to celebrate.”
What comes to mind in the progression of a work of art (or any work) from initial niggling to final presentation, with much problem solving in between, is some level of a combination of faith and grit. And while I cannot live without painting—it is as necessary for me as breathing, no grit required--the desire to push the envelope higher and higher for that “exciting discovery or a shift in direction with a big win” can result in either some level of paralysis or a lot of “hard work” with no tangible result. I cannot make those berries, on rain-soaked bushes, appear in my bucket. I must break through the inertia and grab one.
Soon, spoonful by spoonful, sketch by sketch, word by word, paint stroke by paint stroke, the hollow “plink” in my bucket is replaced by the silent thud of something: something initially fueled by inspiration, but now with weight and tangibility, carrying me forward in my daily “real” job to my next “50 cents”.