2016-06-30
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Editor’s Note: On May 1, 2006, Beliefnet user Neil Woodward, a 59-year-old painter from Vancouver, Canada set out on a bicycle ride across Canada. He hopes it will change his life, renew his faith in God, and reinvigorate his creative inspiration. From the start he's encountered challenges that have tested his already troubled spirit but he is determinedly pedaling around them and into his future. Beliefnet has asked Mr. Woodward to share the joys and tribulations of his sojourn. He'll file these reports in three parts. In Part One, below, he talks about the struggles with alcohol, art, and God that set him on his current course.


In high school I knew a guy who wanted to become a doctor. Since seventh grade that's all he wanted to be. After graduating, he went straight into pre-med and medical school, and was a doctor by age 25. I envy such people. They know exactly where they want to go in life. Their path is clear, and they know that if they work hard and focus their efforts wisely, success can almost always be attained.

I don’t think most people have such a clear picture of where they are going. I, for one, feel I’ve been lost all my life. The only thing I’ve ever had a strong urge to do is create art, and I’ve spent most of my life trying to stifle that desire and make myself do something more sensible. (Everyone knows that devoting one’s life to creating beautiful things is foolish, impractical, and potentially self-destructive—or so I was taught.)

"I don't think most people have such a clear picture of where they are going."

Anyway, 10 or 11 years ago I went through a crisis that forced me to start over. I had to take a new direction, and I was at a loss as to what it should be. In desperation I turned to my rudimentary spiritual beliefs as a source of direction and inspiration. I began to clarify my understanding of a higher power, and my relationship, such as it might be, with it. Within six months I began to get a pretty strong feeling that a higher power did exist and that it was directing me to make proper use of my life and the creative abilities I was born with.

I decided to follow that intuition, and so I started to paint. My first piece, “Sunday Morning, Lonsdale Quay” sold for $4,000, and over the next few years I created 16 more paintings, most of which also sold.

Strangely, though, as I approached the 60th year of my life, that sense of being lost in life returned. I fell into a mental, emotional, spiritual and creative slump. I could barely make myself paint, and, once again, I was plagued with doubts about whether this was really what I was “supposed” to be doing with my life.

In February of 2006, my Vancouver apartment was sold and I was given two months to leave. I was upset at first, but after pondering my situation, I thought maybe this was all happening for a reason. Perhaps my life had become dull and uninspiring, and my higher power was now nudging me to reach into the unknown, explore new possibilities, and look for fresh direction. Instead of looking for a new apartment right away, I put everything I owned in storage, bought camping gear and a cycle-touring trailer, and rode out of Vancouver on my bicycle.


"Instead I put everything I owned into storage, bought some camping gear and a cycle-touring trailer and rode out of Vancouver on my bicycle."

I rode 40 km south and took the ferry to Vancouver Island’s Victoria, a beautifully historic and scenic harbor city on the West coast of British Columbia, with a budding desire to cycle across Canada. Maybe it was blind hope or wishful thinking, but I had a hunch that such a trip would be good for me, that it might pull me out of my mental and spiritual malaise; it might even be a life-altering spiritual experience. If I did decide to go ahead with it, I wanted to start in Victoria, Canada’s westernmost major city, and ride to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the East coast. I also wanted to visit an elderly aunt and a cousin and his wife, as I'd been meaning to do for some time.

After a couple of enjoyable days in Victoria, I rode north to Nanaimo, where I hoped to relax for a few days, organize a new laptop computer that I had bought to keep track of my sojourn, and generally make plans for the next part of my journey.

The weather was beautiful and I was just starting to feel really excited about the adventure ahead. That's when things turned bad.

First, all four of my bicycle panniers, packed with clothing and cycling and camping equipment were stolen from my tent. I left them there while I went to buy food, naively thinking that they would be safe in their remote site. After reporting the theft I spent lots of money and time replacing everything.

Second, on the ferry back to Vancouver, I opened my new laptop to find that it had crashed. I had loaded it with all the files from my desktop computer, which was now in storage—along with my plans to access my files, store and edit digital photos, write, update my website, keep in touch with everyone by e-mail, and record my sojourn.

My anger about these two setbacks had me fantasizing about catching the thieves who stole my belongings and punishing them severely. I imagined myself picketing the computer manufacturer and publicly ridiculing the company for making a product that lasted only 18 days before breaking down. But what surprised me most was that I actually became angry at God. I thought I had gotten over that years ago.

“But what surprised me most was that I actually became angry at God.”


I should explain. My parents were not church-going people, but they did have a basic belief in God that they instilled in me at an early age. I was naïve perhaps, but I grew up believing in a God that loved me and my family and all good people everywhere-- because we were decent people who believed in God, did our best in life, and bore no ill will toward anyone.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1975. I was just 29 at the time, and I had no doubt that she would heal because she was a good person and we were a loving family and God would surely look after us. Watching her grow weaker and weaker until we had to comfort her through the night as she slipped out of this world was a devastating blow. The following spring my father had a stroke that left him partially blind. And a year and a half later my infant son spent six weeks in the hospital and almost died of an infection following a minor surgical procedure. In 1979, my marriage disintegrated, and in 1981 the bottom fell out of the oil market, where I made my living as a draftsman.

My illusions lay in ruins and my mind became dark. I began to perceive God as cold, heartless, and indifferent to humankind. I came to believe that we were all just insignificant pawns in some incomprehensible cosmic game. Seeking relief from my anger, bitterness, and disillusionment, I began to drink heavily and smoke a lot of marijuana. My attitude toward life became, "Who cares about anything. It's all just bull**** anyway."

One day I got an unexpected delayed inheritance from my mother's estate. It wasn't much but I managed to scrape enough additional money together to start a small sign business. I had done some sign-making work and I hated it, but I was good at it and needed a way to survive. Not surprisingly, survival is about all I managed to achieve with the business. My drinking and smoking kept me constantly strapped for money, to the point where I was forced to live in the back of my shop.

Spiritually, I was a mess. I would often come home drunk and fly into a rage, shaking my fist at the sky and shouting all kinds of terrible things at the God I used to believe in. In 1995, when I was 48, I finally went completely broke. Eventually, I started going to AA, got a little more together, and moved to Vancouver. Through the 12-step program I began to believe in a personal, loving God again, since something greater than myself seemed to pull me from the brink of destruction.

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It was through belief in a higher power that I began to paint, and it seemed that my spiritual life and my relationship with God thrived again. I seemed to have found where I belonged in life. I was creating things of value and beauty that would last for centuries, and which would be treasured by their owners long after I was gone. I finally felt like I was doing what I was born to do.

“It was through belief in a higher power that I began to paint…”

Then, over the past year or two, the financial challenges of being an artist began to become apparent. Even though my paintings were selling for what many artists would consider a good price, I still wasn’t able to make a living. Creatively and technically they take a long time to complete. I tried to become a more efficient art producer, but whenever I did that the results were forced and uninspired, and had to be destroyed.

I seemed to only be able to paint only when I was inspired, which meant sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all, and sometimes at all hours of the day and night. I had to work part-time in the display industry to survive, which disrupted my erratic creative life even more.

I spent almost a year developing a technique for making long-lasting acrylic-coated prints from my paintings, but was unable to find a way to market them.
I could no longer even afford to own a car, I was constantly broke, and my life had become increasingly dull and uninspiring.

Then, early this past year, I received another small inheritance—this time from the estate of my stepmother, with whom I had been very close.

That was what made this bike trip possible. But it wasn’t until I hit those initial setbacks—with the theft and computer crash—that I realized my spiritual problem was still alive. My faith and work seemed to go unrewarded, my search for answers seemed to be in vain, and once again I became angry at God.

Continue on to part 2 of this 3-part story.

 

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