The Artist Within

When I was in fourth grade, I lived in a little coal mining town outside of Derby, England, for about a year. It was here I began to wrap my head around how huge and different our world was. Turns out my dad, unbeknownst to the child me, was an adventurer. My mom tolerated this because she loved him. His drive. His curiosity.

While living in Derby my dad worked on an engine project during the week, but on weekends he loved nothing more than taking our family in our brown Volkswagen van to see all the sights England had to offer—cathedrals, estates, gardens, historic sites, and museums. Of course, now, I am grateful to have seen this “other world” as a youngster, but at the time my two brothers and I learned to roll our eyes at the thought of trapsing around yet another British castle,

After a one weekend trek to an art museum in London, we came home with a book. My dad was not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy, but he did love giving us an occasional book. This art book included a photo of a painting we had seen called “Sunflowers” by an artist that interested my older brother Les. The work intrigued me by default. If Les liked it, I did too.

This would be the first time that this artist named Van Gogh would capture my attention, but of course, by now Van Gogh’s work has made its presence known to me many times.  His bright colors have connected with not only me but millions of viewers who are riveted by his irises, sunflowers, starry skies, mountains, houses, cypress trees, peach trees, so many trees, his room in Arles–and the wheat field where he loved to paint and where he would eventually end his life.

The vivid colors of his painting inspired me, and his fight to overcome his illness stirred something in me. Perhaps compassion? I kept looking at those sunflowers. Then something was born in me. Maybe my artist self, for I began secretly drawing on the lined pages of my journal because it was the only paper I had available.

Picasso had his blue period. Inspired by Van Gogh, I had my tree period. My secret tree period. I drew mountains with trees and houses. Mostly trees and they were big and round, and I spent time sketching every leaf on a few of them and often I decorated my trees with flowers. All sorts.  I imagined them as painted in bright, shimmering blues and greens and iridescent oranges and reds—but I lacked paint.

A year later, back home in Indiana, a pear-shaped Mr. Taylor strode into the art room at Homecroft Elementary and emitted sparks of enthusiasm for his dream of the school district art contest. There would be one winner from each class and one grand prize winner for each class at the district. Every fifth grader in my class fell under his spell. For weeks we labored over our masterpieces.  I drew trees. Colorful trees.

Now Mr. Taylor did the unthinkable. He allowed us to draw what we wanted, and he gave us huge cadies with crayons in every color imaginable. I was in heaven. So was spikey-haired Deborah who sat across from me. As I sat roughing out my round, happy trees with flowers in the brightest of colors, primary colors, Deborah sketched a girl with the biggest eyes. The kind you could fall into. As we worked, we chatted, and I learned that Deborah went to art school on Saturdays. Her specialty was cartoons, and it was no surprise that her picture of a girl began to shape up as quite stunning—reminiscent of today’s Japanese anime girls. Tiny mouth and nose and blond hair that flowed in a dozen directions. And then Deborah created another girl and another. All beautiful and all busy catching the colorful fall leaves that were falling outside our classroom windows.

Now Mr. Taylor floated around the room as we worked, cheering us on with what is called a “fixed mindset” today. For he knew precisely what “art” was.  He praised my “bold but terribly unrealistic colors” and then gushed at Deborah’s work. “Beautiful.  I love the subtle colors of these fantastical girls, and how your eye is driven to the surprise of the red and gold leaves!”

Of course, Deborah won the art contest and may have gone on to fame at the district. I don’t remember. I liked Deborah so it was easy to be happy for her, but unwittingly, Mr. Taylor had convinced me I did not have what it takes to be an artist.  He gave me my first creative rejection.  I packed up my crayons and no longer drew trees for the eyes of others.

But the ending of this story is still being written. For I realize now that the story of Van Gogh resonated with me because he understood far better than I ever would the pain of artistic rejection. Completely committed to his art, he retreated to Arles, France, and to wheat fields to explore a vision that few could see or understand.  The creative trek often belongs to the creative artist alone. The more I have looked at art, the more I have grown to understand this. And the more I look at Van Gogh’s art, the more I love it. The vivid colors. The sunhats he wore. The thick strokes of paint. The trees. All of it.

At last, I see there was something to learn from my fifth grade art experience. First, I learned to love looking at art and studying it. But more, I have discovered that it is okay to embrace your own unique creative process. Not everyone will get it and that makes the gift of it even more precious.

Last week I went to the Idea Museum with my granddaughter Harper. After we explored the exhibits, we found ourselves creating trees out of popsicle sticks, paper plates, and colorful steamers.  I added bold flowers all over my tree with marking pens and my granddaughter applauded my work. “Gigi, that tree is beautiful!” I am grateful she is still able to embrace art with the openness of a child. I hope she will always be open to unique ways of creating and viewing the world. May she build a safe space inside for the artist within her. I wish this for you—and I hope I may continue to do the same.


Note: The art attached to the blog is not my work. My childhood art was destroyed during a flood years ago. I do thank the child who created this piece for it spoke to me of “the artist within!”

The Gift of Legacy Journaling and Writing by Merle Saferstein

My day began as they all do—sitting in my favorite spot journaling. That morning as I wrote, I had no idea that something poignant was about to impact my life.

Hours later, I received a call from my friend Sara’s brother Bill in Wisconsin. I first met Sara when she was 40 years old and joined my legacy class at a cancer center.

When Sara became pregnant at 38, she found a lump in her breast, but her obstetrician dismissed her concerns and repeatedly told her it was nothing to worry about. Fast forward three months after giving birth, Sara had excruciating back pain. After undergoing tests, the orthopedic surgeon determined it was metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her spine.

Sara came to the class hoping she would learn something to help her leave a legacy for her daughter were she to lose her battle with cancer.  I suggested she keep a journal and make a video for her child. Of course, we hoped she would live, but her cancer continued to spread.

Three years had passed on that morning when Bill called and said, “Sara wanted me to ask you if you would be willing to read through her journals and find excerpts that you could put together for her daughter to read someday.” I was deeply moved by the request. How was it possible that Sara was entrusting me with her journals—her most private possessions? Without giving it any thought, I immediately said, “Absolutely!”


Sara was actively dying then, but I wrote and told her I would treat her journals as if they were my own and would respectfully choose what to share with her daughter. She sent me back a smile and a heart emoji. Sara died three days later.

When her box of journals arrived, I didn’t open it for a week. I kept looking at it and preparing myself for what I knew would be an emotional, intense journey. I understood that this experience was a huge responsibility and a truly sacred one.

For fourteen years, I had gone through my 359 journals and had taken excerpts from them which I eventually put into two books entitled Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vols. l and ll. Throughout that time, I felt as if I was riding a roller coaster through my emotions, life experiences, and inner journey. But what I was about to embark on was beyond anything I could imagine. I knew Sara wrote her journals for her eyes only, and yet, I would soon be living with her heartfelt words and thoughts.

I holed up for about three weeks, talking to almost no one and immersing myself in Sara’s ten journals. What I found was extraordinary—her strong will to fight cancer and live to watch her child grow up and her letters to God displaying her tremendous faith.

In the end, the excerpts I took from Sara’s journals filled 80 pages, which I had bound into a book—the cover was one from her journals.  When I sent it to Sara’s brother, I asked him to save it until his niece was a young adult. I knew her mother’s words would have tremendous meaning once she was mature enough to absorb and treasure them.

Unlike the journaling we do for ourselves, legacy journaling is written for the benefit of others. When my two granddaughters were born, I began journals for them. They are filled with my spiritual values, life lessons, messages from the heart, reflections, anecdotes about them, and more.


Legacy journaling gives the beneficiary insight into someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It serves as a first-person account of one’s journey and contains a peek into one’s soul and life. It is possible that a journal we write for ourselves might eventually morph into a legacy journal for someone else, as did Sara’s and my own.

One doesn’t have to do legacy writing solely from a journal. We can commemorate occasions such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, religious rites of passage, and other special days with a legacy love letter containing sentiments, memories, stories, and wishes. Legacy love letters can be written to anyone. After all, we leave our legacy in the lives of people we touch in many areas, including family, friends, the workplace, community, and beyond.

Susan, a student in my legacy class, wrote letters to her nine grandchildren. She started with the oldest, who was getting married, and gave him and his future bride the letter the day before their wedding. Susan filled the letter with wonderful memories of her grandson growing up and shared life lessons and thoughts on marriage. She read it to them the day before the wedding, and after their honeymoon, they called Susan and told her of all the gifts they received, hers was by far the most precious.

When my great-niece Halle was about to turn thirteen and before her bat mitzvah, I wrote to her four great-grandmothers, two grandmothers, and mother and asked them to share words of wisdom for Halle. As a gift, I compiled all their responses into a legacy love letter that contained thoughts from her family’s female lineage. Years later when I was visiting Halle and her family, I noticed the letter was hanging on her bulletin board.

Another wonderful way to leave a legacy through writing is to create an ethical will, which is a spiritual document that contains one’s life lessons, values and beliefs, and hopes and dreams. While many people find it meaningful to write when facing mortality, I believe it is all the better to do when one is healthy and able to write without the urgency and pressure of illness. With the expectation of many good years ahead, it helps us to examine our lives and what matters to us. It often provides a road map for how we want to live as we move forward.

What I have learned in my years as a legacy educator is that, above all else, any legacy writing is a gift to the person who writes it as well as a gift to those fortunate enough to receive it.

Never Stop Dancing

In high school there were two games. Basketball and sock-hops.  Oh, there was football, but I didn’t get it, and to my mind, it did not exist. I had played basketball somewhat successfully in sixth grade and perhaps because of this, I had caught basketball fever, an illness peculiar to Indiana. But no girls’ basketball teams existed.

I turned to sock-hops. But without YouTube, it was a geeky girl’s nightmare. Without any sports to my name, I believed myself to be a klutz. How could one master all the crazy dances–the Hitchhiker, the Pony, the Bunny Hop, and the queen of all the dances, the Mashed Potato?  You had to take your shoes off to protect the varnished gym floor, and at sixteen taking your shoes off was a huge commitment. You could not have smelly feet. I didn’t. Nor could you have weird socks.  I did. For some reason I adored colored knee-high socks that matched my skirts. Bizarre. I know.

I never missed a sock-hop.   After a basketball game at Southport High, I could be found with my friends in the gym in a huge circle of teenage girls. I have no recollection of the boys. I believe they would have been on the side of the gym, lurking in the bleachers. Or perhaps they were outside, shooting hoops. Of course, David would dance with us, and he knew all the dance moves. He is one of the few boys in high school that I wanted as a boyfriend. But I probably intuited he was gay and would be a safe bet. While he spread his net of joy wide, he dated only one girl, Debbie, and he broke her heart in college when he told her the truth.

But back in the gym on a Friday night, the star of the sock-hop was Tara. She was probably born with some type of dance gene that most teenagers, at least gawky ones like me, lacked. And my teenage tribe were all envious of her. First, she had those thick white socks that everyone loved because they would slide across the varnish with ease. And when she slid out of her winter white parka and onto the varnished gym floor, all eyes were on her. Her thick auburn curls gently framed her perfectly oval face with a full smile that looked like the photos that hung on my dentist’s walls. While she rarely talked, she often listened, which was part of her charm, and frequently her laughter would punctuate the air with a wonderful energy.

Throughout high school I had a very lively critic in my head. Every Friday when I entered the gym after a game, I wanted to be anywhere but there. Anywhere. I believed myself to be far more awkward than I was, and the vile voice in my head encouraged me to slip behind the bleachers and hide. Several times I dreamed I arrived at the dance barefoot and humiliated!

But within minutes of crowding into the gym this night, one of the teachers had unlocked the front office and began to spin the 45 rpms over the Intercom. The rock music blasting into the gym comforted the vile voice in my head. This evening The Larks stole the opening slot with “The Jerk,” and we all began to jump around like we knew what we were doing.

For thirty seconds I studied the fluid movements of Tara. I got it. Mostly hopping and pulling at air like we were milking a cow. We danced in a circle. Jumped. Danced with a partner. Moved across the circle. Cycled back toward the circle. Suddenly we were caught up in it. And it didn’t matter how silly my socks looked.

Then the Locomotion. I kept my eyes inadvertently glued to Tara. Arms and legs pumping up and down. Then arms pumping forward followed by swooping the arms to the floor and then the sky and finally chugging forward. Later our arms rotated like windmills to the Watusi. Afterwards, we all lined up and jumped in unison to the Bunny Hop, and we even rotated our hips around and around to Chubby Check’s Twist.  A throwback. I suspect we twisted to all the Beatles tunes as well. There were no slow dances. To this day I don’t believe boys in Southport dance.

When Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potatoes” blasted through the intercom, I could feel the sweat pouring from my body. On auto-plot I thrust my body into motion and kicked my long, lanky left leg out with the force of a torpedo. Unexpectedly, my leg crashed into Tara, and knocked her small frame down, flat on the gym floor, curls tossed in every direction. For a second time stopped.

Now I have heard a lot about mean girls. And if Tara had been one, my memory of high school could have spun into nightmares on that night.  But there are small miracles. The energy of the music propelled me to act. I reached out with both arms to help pull Tara up and to gently right her.  “Sorry,” I mouthed to her, and she smiled her toothy grin and then we both burst into laughter and the wonderful sound of it rippled across the gym, and then we were dancing together. Dancing the Mashed Potato to the correct beat and with the correct motions, our feet moving like the beaters of a mixer.

I can still remember being in the gym that night. I was so completely in that moment, and for a short time, like Tara, I, too, felt like a dancing queen. My fears had been tossed amid our collision and the pulse of the music. There was a shift in me. I think I realized how fully I loved dancing and how it can bring people together and even silence the critic in your head. For the first time, I danced with abandon. I danced with joy. I was lost to it. The wonder of it. The energy. The awe.

I learned something that I still hold onto. Love comes in moments. In surges of wonderful feelings. That evening with all the electric energy of all the girls in that gym, I discovered dance. I hope I will never stop dancing.