Can a Mid-Life Conundrum Inspire a Creative Second Wind?

Frances Schultz Plein Air Painting Portrait

Well why the heck not? It did for me and it can for you too. Just let it.

This is an essay I wrote recently for 

For those of you who remember Bee Cottage, this is a version of what happened after. Much has changed. And changed for you too I imagine. And that is sort of the point. Here you go: 


I found a local artist willing to teach me and I signed up for plein air workshops. I was hooked, and again, humbled. Painting en plein air, literally in “full air,” is not for the faint of heart. Sun, wind, rain, people staring, bugs biting, light changing, nature calling (if you know what I mean), all conspire to put you off the whole business. It’s a huge pain in the aesthete. But like I said, hooked.

A somewhat less adversarial activity I also dove into was entertaining, which we can do outside nearly year-round. I love doing up tables, and with the weather and the wonderful flower markets nearby, I was in heaven. My next book was California Cooking and Southern Style, a love letter to our life at Rancho La Zaca and to my husband, who made it possible.

It is true that everything tastes better outdoors, but picnics also make beautiful subjects to paint—Manet’s scandalous-at-the-time Déjeuner sur l’Herbe comes to mind.” Pillows, Raoul Textiles. Block-print tablecloth, William Wayne

With all the flowers I was using, I started thinking to grow my own. If only my ability matched my ambition, though. My personal PPO (pandemic planting ordeal) was a dismal failure. Like, don’t even ask. But it’s getting better.

I still struggle with the house, too, though with help I have softened some of its hard edges and created alcoves of coziness. Like our architecturally assertive house, my husband and I are strong personalities who came together later in life. Relationships, like houses, are a creative process. I had some edges of my own to soften, and I think (hope!) I have done that. In their ways, both the house and my marriage pushed me out into the beautiful and sometimes blustery plein air of creativity and self-discovery. And the more comfortable I got outside, the more comfortable I got inside. (Lately I can’t throw a rock without hitting a metaphor.)

And yet our stories do not define us. How we respond to our stories is what defines us. We create that. You don’t have to meet a cowboy and move to California, but you do have to meet yourself, again and again. For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic compelled a reassessment of our lives. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that,” said theologian Howard Thurman, “because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Our greatest gift to the world is to show up fully and honestly to who we are, to follow “the way of integrity,” as Martha Beck writes in her book by that name. For the last two years I’ve trained and practiced as a Martha Beck Wayfinder life coach. The pandemic timing was a coincidence but fortuitous, as it allowed me to focus in a way I could not have in my usual hamster-wheel life. My interest at first was just to clean up my own act. No shortage of debris there. But to me a “life coach” sounded vaguely bogus. Ergo, no one was more bemused than I to find tremendous reward in working with others. And nothing gives me greater joy than hosting retreats and workshops at our ranch on topics ranging from personal spirituality to—surprise!—plein air painting. (See our current offering here.) Often with outside instructors whose expertise surpasses mine, these gatherings are my way of bringing light to the world: by helping other people bring theirs.

Sometimes in the narrows of our focus—our anxiety, our failures, our stuff—we lose sight of what surrounds us, of all that is en plein air. “Our purpose is not to choose between what’s up close and what’s far away,” writes Mark Nepo in The Book of Soul, “but to let the light of the world shine through our humanness.” This is what it means spiritually to live en plein air.

Adjacent to the olive orchard is a meadow, originally designed by John Greenlee using all native grasses. We’ve attempted to maintain the look with the addition of gaura, lavender, miniature olives, and a lot of weeds.

One day last August I was driving across the stunning foothills of the San Rafael mountains to our little town of Los Olivos, population, 1,200. I was going to help arrange flowers for our church benefit that night. Meanwhile in New York, a dear friend of mine was working round the clock frantically arranging the escape from Afghanistan of some 30 souls associated with the global philanthropic organization she heads. (They made it, by the way. My friend is a total badass.) And I was…weighing my own stunning insignificance. And yet, fixing flowers is something I do. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we must be ourselves because everyone else is taken. That, and comparison is a killjoy. But we do it anyway, and culture confers greater status on some endeavors over others. Saving lives, drum roll! Fixing flowers, eye roll.

But what about those pebbles rippling? Might funds raised at a beflowered church benefit help educate a child who grows up to cure cancer? We each are born with gifts unique to us. I’ve learned to trust that, and I love guiding others to do the same. Took me 60 years and moving to California to learn it, but I’m stubborn. Don’t be like me. Love your capital-T True, capital-S Self, now. Embrace your gifts and talents now. Whether that’s curing cancer, baking cupcakes, or being a friend. We never know what shores are rippled by a pebble we drop.

Yes, my life in California helped me to discover more of my “humanness.” It propelled me into plein air, literally and metaphorically. But here’s the thing: We are in a new life every day, wherever we are, and plein air shifts perpetually along currents of the universe’s creating.

Tom and I were married beneath the cathedral-like canopy of this olive orchard, formerly a water-thirsty croquet lawn. Now, it feels so peaceful, is always cool, and the dappled light through the trees is heavenly. But do these olives make my behind look big?! Orchard designed by Art Luna



  1. Delightful! My husband’s been Ill so I’ve been sticking close to home on the east coast. But someday I’d love to attend one of your retreats. Keep them coming, SVP.

    1. Dear Suzy, I’m sorry to hear about your husband, and I send up a prayer for him and all good wishes to you. We will look forward to having you when the time is right, and we will surely instate the Art of the Soul on the East Coast one of these days. Grace to you, Frances

  2. So much to take away from this beautifully expressed essay. Thank you! I’ll be forwarding this to my three daughters to read. God bless.

  3. What an engaging and inspiring story! Thank you for your writing, and especially sharing your insights into such relatable matters. I find myself able to sort some of my own squanders after this read.
    I would love to find myself at one of your retreats some day. Keep them coming!

  4. I love this piece-your quotes are inspirational and on point. I especially loved the OscarWilde quote! Having lived much of my life in North Carolina and South Carolina as well as Charlottesville Va, I’m now back in Alabama and your travels are inspiring! I’ve now declared 2022 my year of flowers, gardens, and places unseen! No the olives don’t make your butt look big

  5. Another wonderful story…
    I love reading your words while I hear your voice!!! My favorite is “ we must be ourselves because everyone else is taken”!!!! Xoxoxo

  6. Delightful read & your retreat is top on my list. Please keep me posted for your Fall ‘22 retreat….

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