Creamed Chip Beef and Life’s Purpose


I am sitting in my studio writing. It’s a big room, maybe 30′ x 50′ in the back of an old Presbyterian Church. There is nothing fancy to it. Just space and light. The floor is made up of crumbling old tiles that I have covered with canvas dropcloths. There is an array of ten-foot-high windows that bring in a beautiful warm light on a day like today.

In the fourteen foot high ceilings are a bunch of fluorescent lights, tuned to 4800K. What that means in non-technical terms is that even on a cloudy day, I have near-perfect daylight to paint in. Not all of them work at once, but on any given day, enough of them work that I have a bright place to work.

The walls are painted yellow. A bit faded, but good enough for me. I’ve covered them with finished paintings. One of these days, I’ll use it more like a gallery, but for me, it is a place to work. I have a big worktable in the center made of a couple of doors on sawhorses, a small antique table that my computer sets on so I can write and teleconference with clients and friends, and a small plantation desk I use for drawing. At one end, I have a drape and some studio lights to photograph artwork and whatever else comes to mind.

Hardly glamorous. But a little slice of heaven for me. Before the coronavirus upended our lives, I got here maybe once or twice a week for just a couple of hours. I’d paint as I listened to whatever genre of music moved me on that particular day. It wasn’t enough, but it is what life allowed.

Now of course, so many of the things that filled life don’t happen anymore. I am as frustrated at the next guy at that and as adamant that I will keep to the quarantine. My life has changed in the way most of our lives have changed.

Except I have the studio.

It gives me a change of scenery. It gives me solitude. (We don’t get solitude in our homes any more with all of us working from home.). It gives me things to do. I write. I paint. I finish framing old work. I plot how to boost art sales when no one can come to galleries and other places to see the art in person. I sit in my grandmother’s rocking chair at one end of the room and pray and think. Mid-dayish I head back home to the woman I love refreshed and renewed as introverts can be after a few hours of nothing.

The studio came slowly. I began painting several years ago, just as a lark, something to fill some time while I was gainfully unemployed. I found I loved it. I found other people, or at least some of them, did too.

So I turned one of the rooms in my house into a little studio. Ten by ten. Two good windows facing southwest. I loved it. Having a place to do something you love is powerful. It’s a statement, to yourself more than to the world, that this thing you love is important. It is worth investing in, and therefore, so are you.

I began to sell a few paintings. Not many. Just the odd one here and there. Local places were kind and let me show work in their libraries and galleries. I made enough to buy paint, paper and canvas, and that was fine. And then I began to sell a few more.

Not enough more. I painted more than I sold, even in my little studio in the house. Paintings piled up. I had less room to paint and began to dream of a larger studio. The woman I love urged me to do it. I never found a place, or never found a place that was both what I wanted and that I felt I could afford.

I let my practicality get in the way. Bad habit, that.

But I kept looking and finally, this became available. Out of the blue. Better than I could have hoped. Affordable with all the space and light. What matter that the heat wasn’t working yet? What matter that the plumbing was iffy? (all those are fixed now, BTW). It was the space and light I wanted. The rest could be worked around.

I’ve been here about a year and a half now. There is a sign outside with “The Art of Tom Atkins” on it. People who don’t know who I am, know who I am. And I have this place, a change of scenery when most of us are bundled into our homes.

I have a place to go.

With things to do.

That’s what we are missing in this time of quarantine. Seriously, most of us kinda like being at home more. We like the slower pace. But our loss of jobs or our pared-down work that we can do from home leaves us without a sense of purpose, a sense of direction and moving forward and those things are more a part of our lives than we realize.

We need that, I think. There are only so many household projects we can do. There is only so much cleaning we can do. We want something that works with others, that matters that gives us a reason to spend our time on.

People are finding it. Slowly. We are learning new ways to matter. New ways to reach out. New ways to live our purpose, but it is slow going. It is a lot of change in what has been a remarkably short period of time.

My guess is that we will emerge from this changed. We will have discovered new purposes or new ways to live out our existing purpose. We will discover new speeds to work and live in. And when “normal” begins to kick in, we will be loathe to give away all the changes we’ve had forced on us.

But for now, we are figuring it out. Me in my studio, My wife in her home office. My daughter on her dining room table. My son in his workspace in his apartment. And you? Where are you finding it? What are you finding?

Make your changes thoughtfully.

I made cream chipped beef on toast this morning for breakfast.  It’s an acquired taste, I am told. I have heard it called ‘trailer trash” food and have heard it called “food of the Gods”.  Depends on where you come from, I guess.

Whether you like it or not, there is a secret to making it. It is simple enough. Toss in some butter. Throw in the chipped beef and let’s it simmer in the butter a bit. Toss in some milk, and let it simmer, slowly mixing in flour to thicken it as the salty beet give flavor to the white gravy.

The secret is paying attention. Cooking it slow and watching the mix, slowly adding the flour, a bit at a time until it gets to just the right consistency. Take it up too soon and it is like pouring milk over the toast, all soggy and nasty. Wait too long and it becomes a salty paste.  It changes from one to the other in a heartbeat, and only by simmering it slowly and watching do you get it just right.  (It was perfect this morning, BTW.).

This time we are in is not unlike chipped beef on toast. Take your time with it. Notice how the changes affect you and leave you feeling. As things transform back to normal, make the change back slowly as well. Pick the best of both worlds. Reclaim your purpose, but more importantly, make that reclamation a deliberate thing.

We’ll all be happier if we do.

Till then? My prayers are with you all. Be well. Travel wisely when you have to. Stay home when you don’t.



  1. My first thought on seeing the title and photo was “Tom’s Diner is open.” Then as I read on, I realize how grateful I am that my husband and I chose to wait on selling our house and did not downsize when we officially became “empty nesters.” Every square foot has contributed to surviving the quarantine, now that we are both working from home .

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