What I Learned in My Bucket List Year in Costa Rica … by Leo Tolstoy

Stu & Tolstoy CR 2018
Our bucket list year just ended, and our lives will never be the same. What did I learn with my wife and two young sons in a remote corner of the Costa Rican jungle? Having also checked War and Peace off my bucket list this year, I’ll let Leo Tolstoy, in his own sublime phrasing, answer that question for me.

“We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.”

We tend to pick a lane and stay in it long after it feels stale, often for a lifetime … never manifesting the precious things we vow to do “one day.” That is folly. Jodi and I have dreamt of this year abroad with kids for decades, long before we met one another. And we are showing our sons that dreams can be real if you are bold enough to make seismic, disruptive changes. Leaving Wall Street to pursue art, fearing I’d be mocked forever, remains one of my best decisions. I want my children to understand that they control their destinies, and even when they don’t, their dilemmas and “failures,” be they academic, social or internal, are fertilizer in their fields of self improvement and, eventually, inner peace.

Tolstoy

Tolstoy, born in 1828 into an aristocratic Russian family, fought in the Tsar’s army in the hairiest winter war conditions ever. His surroundings and reference points could not have be more different than our tropical paradise. Still, his characters realize something I too gained clarity on this past year – Love grows, evolves and expands. I leaned in and loved my kids and wife hard this year, through ecstasies and agonies. And felt that love boomerang back to me. I am truly happy. Because happiness is the flower that grows from loves seed. We’ve been motivated this year not by the accumulation of wealth, prestige and visibility but the pursuit of kindness and wellness, both ours and others. This paradigm shift cannot be overstated. I found the people we encountered and befriended intriguing and exhilarating. Because, if you somehow found your way to this microdot on the map called Playa Grande, you have an interesting story to tell. One which includes a conscious choice to step off the hamster wheel, walk away from people and places rife with stress and chase your bliss. Being surrounded by productive people who chose joy as a lifestyle changed our game at a cellular level. I intend to keep it that way, wherever I go from now on. 

“It is not beauty that endears, it is love that makes us see beauty.”

I’ve been with my wife fifteen years and love her more now than ever. The very first time I saw her, I thought she was cute, because she is. But today, her physical beauty is a minor ingredient in my deep and abiding admiration. The essence of my love resides in her unwavering courage and selflessness throughout our journey. She meets the daily challenges of raising our children with preternatural gentleness and patience. And she’s always game for good times and world-wide adventures. She got certified for SCUBA this year and is chomping at the bit to explore that magical universe with me and our kids. Through the prism of our time-tested bond, her physical beauty shines more each day.

Jodi and Bodhi Arenal 2019

Kai Avid Reader Award 2019

Playa Grande road

“There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”

There is one road in and out of our little beachside town. It is a fine, smooth road, though unlit and a bit scary in a hard rain at night. Just last week, a beautiful yellow line was added down the center of this black road, making it far more safe and easy to navigate. I derive a surprising amount of satisfaction from this nondescript yellow stripe. It signifies security, progress and visual symmetry. More and more, cleansed by deep nature and tranquility, I see greatness and find joy in such simple things.   

Bodhi Galapagos 2019

“He was always in a hurry to get where he was not.”

Sure, we need to herd the kids off to school each morning in a furious, last minute, “where’s my homework” rush … but in general, our pace has slowed markedly. We’ve irrevocably pivoted away from rush/grind/rinse/repeat/die to a more gentle, experiential and connective manner of filling the hours in a day. Yes, we have the financial freedom to do this, no small thing, but we each can review our relationship with money and ask ourselves if the system we are part of really serves our values of a happy, healthy, well-balanced life. If it does not, perhaps it’s time to find a new system. Most folks forget that the hamster wheel actually goes nowhere. 

Kai surf contest Tamarindo 2019

Tamarindo surf contest 2019

“Oh, how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! It’s all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky.”

Early on in our stay here, Jodi asked me who and what I missed back home. It surprised me to realize that I missed nothing and no one. I say that with no arrogance and no judgment, for I love my friends and family with all my being. Naturalist John Muir, a kindred spirit who escaped into nature, said it best, “I am learning to live close to the lives of my friends without ever seeing them. No miles of any measurement can separate your soul from mine.” In fact, many of the folks I love most I haven’t seen in years. But that’s ok. I no longer hold any guilt around that unavoidable truth. Living a healthy lifestyle under “that infinite sky,” makes us giddy as puppies. So, we’ll see you when we see you … hopefully soon!

“Yes, I may very well be killed tomorrow.”   

I lost someone I love this year. Whether you live to 54 or 94, life goes by in a nano-second. Still, most of us tend to postpone our bucket lists until the end of our lives. Let’s flip that script! If there’s one take home message I can share, it is this – Pick up your bucket right now, walk down to the ocean, and begin pouring your dreams out into reality … before that option no longer exists.
  

PS. To learn more about and follow this journey in photos, both past and future, visit my Instagram @stuart_sheldon

Pura Vida!

 

Anger Issues?

Studio footprints 2

“What are anger issues, Daddy?”

My ever-perceptive 6-yr-old asked me this on the ride to school a few days ago, having somehow heard the term mentioned in his classroom.

A week earlier, just 2 days after the conclusion of an absolutely mental Art Basel, this very boy stood barefoot and shirtless in my studio, hands gloved in hunter-green watercolor paint, splotches on his shorts, inner arms and legs, one patch in the middle of his back. Home sick from school, I had to bring him with me, and in twenty minutes a bus with eleven collectors, one of whom had been paying serious attention to my career for over a decade, was due to arrive for a studio visit.

I gazed at the mess as the boy stared up at me, fingers spread as the paint dried between them. Tiny green footprints scattered from a seeping puddle in the middle of the floor beside a large rectangle of cardboard covered entirely in swirls of this same muddy green. Beside the cardboard lay a dozen squeezed tubes of watercolor paint, each with its cap off, wounded soldiers in my son’s apparent victory with his verdant imagination.

Bodhi

I shut my eyes and started shaking like a broken toy. Turned from him and literally stomped my feet and made an aggressive growling sound. “No No Noooooo,” I yelled to the concrete floor. When I turned back, my boy stood crying. Crestfallen.

“You didn’t tell me any rules, Daddy. You didn’t tell me what to do!” 

I pride myself on being a self-taught painter who lets it flow and trusts the arc of the sun to choose the palette each day. More gut. Less mind. 

The label on the dunce cap reads ARTIST in this masterpiece by French genius MTO. Photo courtesy of Walter Michot, Miami Herald Staff
The label on the dunce cap reads ARTIST in this masterpiece by French genius MTO. Photo courtesy of Walter Michot, Miami Herald Staff

My son felt green today and let it flow with the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. And in response I chose to trample the flames of his passion, frightening him with a clenched body and sharp-edged raised voice. 

Yes, I was sleep deprived, hungover and emotionally thrashed from a week running around playing the art game. Yes, my ego wanted to sell more at the fairs. Yes, I wanted my studio to appear appropriately shop-worn and smart for the any-minute guests. But his only crime was doing exactly what I gave him permission to do. “I want to paint, Daddy.” I handed him the paper and the paints and showed him where to go about his creative machinations in the next room, as I hung works and swept up and dove deeper into my own fatigue.

Bodhi Paper boy

What does this one look like he wondered, opening one then another of the paint tubes. He brushed at first, then opted for his hands, because finger-painting is awesome. And footprints even awesomer. And eventually he tried every color in the box. Why not, Daddy said I could paint. And who says you can’t have it all? I guess I did when I started yelling at the air. 

So, my lovely, sentient youngest child … anger issues are the residual stink left when a dad squelches his boy’s beauty and never bothers to own it.

King-of-Nothing
The King of Nothing, Acrylic, corrugated cardboard, paper, tape, oil crayon on canvas, 48×36″ 2005

Lucky for us both, I saw the error of my ways in the sheen of your tears. And, later that day, I explained to you how wrong I was. How sorry I was. How sad I was that I gave you the idea that it was not ok to make a mess in the studio, when that’s one of the best reasons to have a studio in the first place. And I told you again that night and again the next day, because … what anger issues remain from my complicated youth shall end with me and not be passed on to your gleaming beautiful heart.

You, my exquisite mess-maker. My teacher. My canvas. 

Let’s go paint!

Winning

 

The Other F Word

 

Drunk Smile

Late one morning, long before children, I sat on the edge of a New Orleans hotel bed and exhaled audibly. Inside my skull, a spicy Jazz Fest bisque of bourbon and psychotropics simmered from the night before.

I bent down and tied my first shoe, and it wasn’t until I’d finished tying my second that I realized I wasn’t wearing pants. Laissez bon temps rouler!

The Other F Word

In the brilliant documentary, The Other F Word, aging punk rockers like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers “transition into parents and try to maintain the contrast between their anti-authoritarian lifestyle with the responsibilities of fatherhood.” Mosh pits and trashed tour buses give way to mashed peas and Wheels on the Bus. I’m no punk rocker, but since day one, I’ve partied hard. Growing up in Miami, I can’t tell you how many nights we’d exit a bar into broad daylight, wincing, withering vampires. The madness continued into my twenties and thirties, from countless New Years Grateful Dead Shows to midnight trance raves in Capetown forests. From surf camping deep into Baja in a full-on hurricane to sleeping on roofs in outlying Greek isles. The wilder, zanier and more off the grid, the better.

Go Big or Go Home!

Backcountry in Zion National Park
Backcountry Zion National Park 1992

A few months after our first son was born, I stood in my paint-splotched terrycloth robe watering the Meyer lemon tree in front of our houseboat. A friendly neighbor with a five-year-old walked past, his handsome face beaming through a dark Argentine beard. “Haven’t seen you lately,” he said. I smiled through bloodshot eyes and shrugged my shoulders. “We haven’t been out much,” I said.

“That’s because you’re going in,” he added. 

Going IN
Going IN

My kids are now six and eight, and we are definitely IN. And the further in we go, the more I recognize these moments of IN-ness to be as novel as scuba diving with manta-rays in Bora Bora or biking naked through Burning Man. In equal measure, all of the above stimulate a sense of wonder and play. Immediacy and revelation. Shock and surprise. The things I will always seek most.

Back in the day, had you invited me to something as institutional as Club Med or, god forbid, a Disney cruise, I would have politely refused.

Now, with kids’ activities baked in, all I want to do is take Disney cruises to Club Med. 

Recently, with our boys and a gaggle of young nieces and nephews, Jodi and I actually boarded our first Disney excursion. My kids are no longer big into Disney, though at one time my oldest was so absolutely mad about princesses that, at age 3, he insisted on being Cinderella for Halloween. I cannot express the depth of my love for this, then and now.

Cinderella Story
My cell phone cover photo for the past 5 yrs (notice my little princesses holding hands).

Our kids ran happily amok in a sea of Goofys, Minnies and Caribbean Pirates, most interested in the see-through water slide and video games. What interested me most was the parents. For, no matter where they were from, how old, young, rich or poor, each was going IN. And, in so doing, each exposed their raw humanity. The big tatted up dad smearing sunscreen on his little girl’s pale body, being ever so gentle around the neck and face, was poetry. As was the tall, sinewy black man on one knee listening with wide, engaged eyes, to his little boy bounce on tiptoes and recount an encounter with Buzz Lightyear. Ditto the manicured blonde finally getting a moment to relax on a chaise, grinning through Tom Ford sunnies ever so gratefully, as she observed her twins giggle and splash across the pool. 

Self Portrait With Blue Martini, Stuart Sheldon

As an older dad, I jammed in four decades worth of mischief and left few stones unturned before the children arrived. What now has me pumped is riding the wanderlust train with them.

More often than not, when I’m at an adults-only event, I secretly wish my kids were with me. Asking me random things like, “Is there any more “Brocamole,” as Bodhi did recently. Or singing the lyrics to the songs from the Hamilton soundtrack (Just You Wait!), which we’ve been listening to non-stop of late (in lieu of seeing the play for $1000). 

El Salvador
El Salvador

That’s not to say I’m not keeping the madcap missioning alive. I did just return from a week surfing El Salvador. But I’m equally, if not more, ecstatic to be journeying with my youngest son deep into Sonoma County this summer to an event that used to be just 100 cackling Burners eating and drinking like vikings and dancing maniacally till dawn beneath the redwoods. 

Training My Son Early On
Training My Son Early On

Now, most of those same veteran ragers have kids in tow, running in their own feral wolfpacks, whilst we so-called grownups make slightly-less-physically-damaging-than-before-yet-no-less-delightful amounts of merriment.

Beautiful renegades all!  

Party AnimalYou say you want to get crazy? 

Production on my Fall show is about to crank up, and I’m ready for spontaneous drop-ins in the new Little River studio – 6728 NE 4th Av, Miami FL 33138. Come on down! 

My New Little River Studio
The beer is cold!! 6728 NE 4th Av, Miami FL 33138. I’m going in!

Do We Ruin Our Kids By Giving Them a Better Life?


father and sons

“I’m bored,” my seven-year-old barked at me, as I flipped eggs one sunny Saturday. I stomped in from the kitchen and pointed the spatula. ”You are never to say that again. You have a room full of toys and books and a park nearby and a pool. Figure it out.”

mother & son
Photo by Julie Kahn

Are my exquisite sons stricken with a sense of entitlement?

I grew up with a single school-teacher mom. We lived modestly, yet I always had a bike and a baseball team. I even went to sleep-away camp. Still, I felt embarrassed that we resided, literally, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” I’d ask my hardworking dad when we were going to join the country club to which a number of my friends’ families belonged. My children live much higher on the hog today. I know that’s the American Dream. But I struggle with it because, though my boys are good souls, silly and kind, I witness, at times, a glaring lack of appreciation for their good fortune.

Soccer

I joke that my parenting mantra is “not to f*&k my kids up too much.”

While my wife and I appear to be succeeding at that dubious metric, I believe we can do better in making our boys understand that their first-world comfort is solely based on their dumb luck combined with our hard work (and dumb luck). They appear to have certain expectations based on where and how we live, with soccer camp, X-Box, sushi dinners and family trips abroad being standard operating procedure.

In a wonderful article in The Guardian, titled, Why Depriving Your Kids of Toys is a Great Idea, Madeleine Somerville writes, “It’s time to rethink deprivation as a parenting strategy. Living with less, it turns out, means more. More money in our savings account, more space on our shelves, and best of all, more communication, imagination and concentration from our kids.”

The Politics of Producing Pleasure, Acrylic, latex house paint, oil crayon, graphite, book covers on a wood door, 2015, Stuart Sheldon
The Politics of Producing Pleasure, acrylic, latex house paint, oil crayon, graphite, book covers on a wood door, 2015, Stuart Sheldon

Somerville is not suggesting we remove toys from your kids’ lives, but that we throttle back on providing every creature comfort available to us. She writes, “My five siblings and I grew up in a cruel wasteland of deprivation that included whole-wheat cereals, secondhand clothing and shared rooms. To add insult to injury, we didn’t even have a TV to distract us from our hardship.” I asked a friend, whose three kids are about to graduate from medical schools and masters programs, how he made such solid citizens. “Just love them,” he told me. “Love them hard.” I agree love is primary, but there’s obviously more to it.

Sky's the limit
Sky’s the limit.

Somerville continues, “In a study designed to identify and prevent addictive patterns in adults, two German researchers somehow convinced a nursery school to remove all toys from the classroom for three months. Remarkably, the scenario didn’t devolve into Lord of the Flies acted out in miniature. Instead, teachers reported that while on the first day the children seemed bewildered and confused, by the end of the third month they were engaged in wildly imaginative play, able to concentrate better and communicate more effectively.”

New neighbors, with two kids the same ages as ours, recently relocated from Europe to the home directly across from us. Within minutes of their arrival, both their children were on bikes riding up and down our street. In the days that followed, we’d answer our doorbell to two toothless smiles, inviting, in charming Dutch accents, our sons out to kick a soccer ball. They even hung a rope swing in the Poinciana tree in their front yard.

“Our kids just got a normal childhood,” I said to Jodi, in all seriousness. No playdates, no schedules, no trendy toys. Just children being with their pals in the front yard, making and appreciating their own entertainment.

Father & son at the beach

At the beach recently, I watched my sons dig a hole in the sand at the water’s edge, burrowing into the wet muck with bare hands. An hour passed, and while each focused intently on the widening hole and incoming tide, my heart filled with the purity of their satisfaction. Conversely, when they display a lack of respect and appreciation for their privilege, I’m not just mortified at my own failings, I fear for them when forced to swim in the turbulent waters of adulthood.

Just because we may have the means to give our kids the world, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

The Little Prince, acrylic, book covers, paper on canvas, 60x60" 2015, Stuart Sheldon
The Little Prince, acrylic, book covers, paper on canvas, 61×60″ 2015, Stuart Sheldon

 

How to Face Yourself

mirror

My cheeky 6yr-old made goofy expressions in the mirror, raising his eyebrows and, finally, grimacing slightly. “Daddy, you know what I don’t like? That you can’t ever see your real face. Because the mirror is a fake face.”

Bodhi & Aurelia 2015
photo by Daren Joy

Wow. His observation startled and charmed me, for he grasped something that I’d not considered in over 50 years, something so true and ironic – that we can never actually see ourselves.

Though we strive our whole life to understand and optimize our own essence, we can never EVER stare into our own eyes … where the answers lie. We must settle for a reflection in cold glass.

Michael Loveland
Michael Loveland #fancynasty

Thus, we must open ourselves to another.

One of the greatest gifts you can give one you love (and vice-versa) is to look at their face and into their eyes, literally and figuratively. To enter them and spend time, without judgement, inside of them. To gently yet assertively bear witness to their strengths and pitfalls. And to report back what you have seen … without judgement. In other words, be a trustworthy, observant friend. AND a constructive critic. To distill what the world sees … for better or worse.  

Open your eyes.
Open your eyes.

As we get older, we think we’ve figured life out, that we put forth our best selves. But, who we are and how we seem are often quite different, because our neural pathways and patterns, driven by self-preservation, become trenches with walls so high they block our ability to see what we have become … and hinder our ability to make critical behavioral adjustments.

Do you trust someone enough to let them see you? Raw, broken and without the mask you wear daily? Are you ready to hear their report with an objective sense of openness and wonder? 

Artists of Miami - Stuart Sheldon
Photos by So-Min Kang

And who do you love that could use your eyes? 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Come see my newest piece THIS SATURDAY, Feb 27th
String Theory // Doors of Perception

Doors of Perception Exhibition Feb 27, 2016
Doors of Perception Exhibition Feb 27, 2016

Over 25 terrific artists received a door to transform into something special. Plus, everyone get’s a ball of string and is invited to interact with fellow partiers by yarn-bombing the room and navigating the maze of artist-designed doors. All while shaking your ass to superfunky Afrobeta, who the Miami New Times called “dance-a-licious beats.” RSVP is FREE but limited, use miamiartdoors.eventbrite.com to get your name on the list!

Come knock on my door. Seen here in progress
Come knock on my golden door. Seen here in progress

Buzzing From the Stoke

Sam Freeski

At a religious service last month, invited to pray silently, I shut my eyes, inhaled deeply and began my routine gamut of wishes: ongoing health for my children, longevity for my parents, personal creative success, etc. Suddenly, my thoughts came crashing to earth, as I remembered my friend Ron and his 16-yr-old son, Sam, a champion freeskier who, just a week earlier, suffered a major wipeout and now lay in a serious coma.

It seems, when we invoke a higher power, most of us tend to reach for the lofty branches of future outcomes. But, as I sat in that service thinking of my buddy sitting beside his motionless son, my framework tilted backward, from future to present, from what I hoped to realize to what actually existed for me:

  • Healthy, big-hearted children
  • Living and loving parents
  • The use of my five senses
  • A magnificent life partner

If life was a song I’d title it Everything Can Change The Next Instant. And the chorus would be two words repeated over and over – Give Thanks.

Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19"x15" 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Fortune and Courage, mixed media on paper, 19×15″ 2005, Stuart Sheldon

I come back to this again and again, because we’re all suffering to some degree. For some, that suffering is ancillary, a sidebar to a life of plenty. For others, like Ron, it is acute, the focal point of his waking hours. Either way, the bad, even the worst-case bad, can be tempered if we itemize the good. And there’s good in there somewhere.

As weeks passed, Sam lay unmoving amidst beeping machines and IV tubes. Day in and day out, Ron stroked the golden hair of his first born. And, even in this horrific state, Ron managed a steady stream of FB posts and emails to acknowledge the real-time tidal wave of love and support that washed over him and his family. He implored us to keep it coming. From the sandwich shop that kept sending food and would not accept payment. To the folks back home who kept a vigil for his boy. To Sam’s ski-team coach and colleagues who paced in the hospital waiting room as the hours ticked by. 

Happy Sam

Whether you call it prayer, intention, focus or simply hope, we all sent our constant healing vibes to Sam. And each time I thought of Sam in his deep sleep, my very next thought was of my sons who were awake – a stark mix of pain and joy that kept me off balance … and made me hug my kids extra tight and kiss them twice as much.

Sam & Sis

Sam died last week. 

I’ve always been a strong believer that there is no future and no past, there is only now.

But how can that be true for one whose child is gone? When, there is only past, what does one pray for?

The answer, syrupy as it may sound, is gratitude. Because, in my darkest hours, there was nothing else to hold onto other than the fact that our loved ones tried so hard to help us.

Goodbye Old Friend, 20"X23" Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 2005, Stuart Sheldon
Goodbye Old Friend, Acrylic, paper, antique book pages and cardboard on panel with original poetry, 20X23″ 2005, Stuart Sheldon

Sam was beloved by all. And Ron knows this unequivocally. I hope my sons are held in the same regard. And, like Sam, they charge headlong into their passion, constantly “buzzing from the stoke,” as one surf buddy described that sublime state of being. May they laugh heartily all the time. Make others laugh like Sam did. Stride confidently up to adults and introduce themselves like Sam did. Be one of the bros. Those are all future hopes.

But, we’re talking about present acknowledgment – and for that I can say, with a song in my heart, thank you Sam, for leading by example. For being one of the good guys. For choosing joy and badassery as an athlete. And silly as a friend. And got your back as a brother. And snuggly as a grandchild. You are the child we want our children to be.

And you always will be.

Death Is Nothing