photo friday: (creative) license

Posted by on January 25, 2013

Translation: “Once there was a unicorn. The unicorn loved to cook. She once saw a restaurant. The restaurant lady was sick so the unicorn decided to do the restaurant lady’s job.”

Today’s Photo Friday theme is “license” as in “license to choose any theme you want,” and I find that the idea that keeps coming to me is one that has been in the back of my mind for some time: to compile a collection of my daughter’s artwork that represents her creative spirit. I feel the need to do it because a lot of her artwork goes the way of the recycling bin, or the little sister destruction company, or just gets otherwise destroyed, and I’m often worried that there will not be a record–or at least an adequate one–of the person who she is at age six, which, in my mind, is closely connected to her artwork.

I hope this does not come across as somehow putting her on display for the world, or promoting her as some kind of prodigy–or worse yet–as me being a stage mom. I do not think I am that kind of mother, and certainly do not harbor secret notions of my child as exceptional. I am not a child development expert and I have no measure by which to determine whether or not her artwork is within the bounds of totally pedestrian, marginally exceptional, or off the charts. I don’t know what these charts would be or what they would say. And I am not interested.

My suspicion is that my experience with this first grader of mine falls well into the realm of the ordinary. For that reason, I’m not sure why I should presume to write about it, except that I presume to write about every other topic in my life. I just feel like sharing about it today as a sort of tribute to the larger picture of this girl who might as well, along with her sister, be the sun and the moon for me, because of course they are both at the center of my vision at all times. And because of that I am probably that much more likely to miss truly seeing her because I am so caught up in the mundane demands of raising her. But it never hurts to try, and try again, to really see your child, and maybe that is why I wanted to put together this post.

This girl, my firstborn, is a bundle of forces that both delight and confound me on a regular basis. She is constantly making stuff with paper and planning things that in real life would involve an enormous mobilization of hospitality, effort, and sometimes money. It translates into a sort of dual blessing/burden dichotomy for me. I am glad she is the way she is, but I often do not know how to be supportive while simultaneously keeping things within the bounds of real-life limitations.

And she is very quick to feel persecuted, so things can get touchy around here sometimes. She wakes up in the morning, runs to the dining room table with her hair still a nest of tangles, and, before going to the bathroom, before eating breakfast, before doing anything, grabs a piece of paper and scissors and gets busy making a snowflake– little chips of paper flying everywhere (does it strike anyone else as unusual to roll out of bed and immediately grab a pair of scissors?) and sometimes the conflict between us ensues literally from this point until the point when we are getting into the car, and even while I am battling her I am also inwardly conflicted about the fact that I am stopping her from her creative pursuits in order to impose the more artificially constructed school day onto her, while also knowing that that is just real life.

With zero prompting from anyone she writes notes to friends, classmates, and family (which go largely undelivered due to the administrative backlog). With zero prompting she also puts books together, stapling the spine and numbering the pages. Social gatherings and especially holidays loom large for her and she anticipates them at least a month in advance, because she has lots of plans and ideas surrounding them. Valentine’s Day is already well on her radar here in mid-January and she is talking about the cards she is going to make for her classmates and has already made a prototype. While having dinner at the home of some friends recently, we had been there a matter of a few seconds when she took the notepad and pen she brought and started writing a “book” with multiple pages, which began: “Me and My Sister: A True Story.” When asked where she got the “true story” part, she said she did not know.

One Tuesday evening we were all in the car, heading for home, after a particularly tense afternoon in which I was very exasperated with her for multiple reasons, among which was the whiney voice that she had been consistently using for the last few hours. Suddenly her voice shifted from being whiney, into a more controlled and diplomatic tone, as she announced very amicably: “Want to hear my idea for what we can do every Tuesday? We can do this really fun thing that we’ll do each week. It’ll be called ‘Stay Up Late.’ It’ll just be this really fun thing we can all do together every Tuesday. We can start tonight.” In spite of myself, I had to smile at this crystal clear insight into the way her mind works.

She takes it upon herself to schedule parties. She makes a guest list, invitations, and a list of activities like Pin the Tail on the Donkey. She did this for her birthday party, which was fine, but I hardly have the heart to tell her that the other twenty parties she has planned since then are probably not going to materialize. I suspect she is an extrovert whose social networking savoir faire is only going to grow more elaborate and complex as she gets older, requiring more and more oversight from yours truly. 

I am an introvert, with a very limited supply of energy for all of this juking and jiving. I am also a dreamy  and quiet sort of person who wants and needs to go into my own turtle shell regularly. It is very difficult for me to get on board with all of her imagination and energy and social aspirations involving the girls next door as well as the girl down the street (whose parents have not been proven to be the simplest people to coordinate play dates with). I have to explain over and over again (while she is making the invitations) that these girls are on different schedules than we are, and are not available the very moment it occurs to her to host a tea party, and anyway, our house is a mess right now and it’s a school night and not really the right time for company. And she is undeterred.

Even if I were not an introvert, the practical demands of life as an adult and mother would prevent me from getting down on her level and sharing her indefatigable excitement over all of these splashy ideas that come out in the form of drawings, lists, greeting cards, and drama. She has this preternatural energy toward this sort of thing that I do not particularly relate to. Was I this way as a child? I don’t remember, but I don’t think so. In any case, my role now is that of reluctant killjoy– to lead her, coax her, sometimes yank her, or lasso her back into boring reality again and again. She has a strong agenda of her own every minute, and rarely does it coincide with the demands of the workaday world which the majority of society is required to inhabit. She can be stubborn; she talks about three times too loud for my ears to handle. And so we lock horns– a lot. And I am anticipating many more years of horn locking with this girl. 

The blessed times are the ones when I can just do my thing while she is busy doing hers, and nothing is pressing either of us. Sometimes I do get down on the floor with her and we make things together. And of course we read together and play board games. Every now and then I put the girls on stools in the kitchen, and we bake something. I try to be a good mom in this way, here and there, as I feel that I can. But my favorite is when they both play and play and play on their own, even if it means that I will pay the price later by having to put several rooms back together afterward. And this is when I discover the trail of her artwork all over the place, in every corner of the house. Piles and piles of it.

This is finally why I started occasionally scanning or taking photos of the ones that particularly delight me. But sometimes her little sister gets to it first and makes an executive decision that an item is not of archival merit by crumpling it up with zest. This results in screaming, crying, and hitting at times. I have no idea at what rate we go through reams of paper in this household. I try not to leave it sitting in the printer, because it disappears, and I feel wasteful. On the other hand, I reason, she is not enrolled in any kind of class, sports, or lesson right now– so maybe the money that would go toward that is going instead toward…paper?

I am probably not much different than many other mothers who are simply trying to figure out how to help and not hinder a child who possesses a very different personality from her own and raw potential which is as yet unformed and mysterious but incredibly forceful. She is good at something here–there is some kind of bundle of qualities inside of her that braids together imagination, energy, and creativity in their most raw forms. It is just not yet completely clear. But why should it be?–she’s a child. She gets lost in her imagination for hours, sitting in the bathtub until the water gets cold because she is conducting a big dramatic production with her dolls and ponies. One night just before falling asleep, she confessed that she felt as if Big Foot was going to step on our house and crush it while we were all sleeping. Oh, and lest I am painting a picture of a kid who never gets bored, let me also add that she is completely fixated on movies and tv. While her little sister gets bored after five minutes of any cartoon and wanders off to play with her tea set, Esme would spend the entire day in front of the television if we let her. This is another area in which I often feel worn down. How many times can I say no to screen time in the course of the morning, the day, the week?

I make peace with tv watching to some extent, but I am most content and feel good when she is sitting at the table with paper and crayons. When she takes her time with a drawing, I am always very surprised and impressed with what comes out. I have seen her fill in the scales of a mermaid tale with thorough detail and precision. Other times–most times– she is rushing and the drawings come out in the broadest strokes. She can do a very “perfect” rainbow, but more often just churns out a very quick and jagged sketch of one. I wonder sometimes if I should somehow be guiding her to greater standards– to channel her energy into quality rather than quantity. Sometimes her handwriting is tidy, but then it is unwieldy and sloppy, whether because she is impatient, or just because the needs to get the idea out quickly, I don’t know. I know that different early childhood educators from different philosophies would say different things. But beyond the passing curiosity, I cannot say I really care that much. In the words of Penny Lane from Almost Famous, “It’s all happening.” Her childhood: it’s just happening; it’s hurtling forward at lightening speed. I try to be present in the moment and be conscious. I try to be sensitive. I try to take care of myself so that I will be better for her.

I did not make this girl with my own two hands. I do not know where she came from, and I do not know where she is going. I can only do so much. Mostly I just want to go into my own shell, curl up in my pajamas, write, read, or watch PBS…alone…with a pot of tea…or a glass of wine. Is that bad?

I am not a homeschooler, no sir. And I feel unqualified to impose any discipline or guidelines onto her raw inclinations, not to mention her heart, which I sometimes think is three sizes too big. I err on the side of non-interference for fear of somehow burdening her or sending her the message that what she is doing is somehow not good enough. I want her to be as uninhibited creatively as she can possibly be, for as long as she can possibly be, before the inner critic kicks in, as it surely will. I want her to write stories completely unfettered from any internal critic. I’ll keep correcting her table manners, but I would tremble in my boots before taking on the role of art director with her. I think my hope is that others will come along in her life who will know better than me how to guide and direct whatever this raw energy in her may be; my job is just to give her the time and space– and paper– to follow her creative impulses.

Meanwhile, I try to keep her clothed and fed and socialized, and try not to squelch her spirit, even while her spiritedness itself is sometimes quite draining for me. By putting this together here is just my way of distancing myself from the fray and gaining perspective on it– the perspective I need to separate her from myself– the perspective that I will probably need to keep re-acquiring for the rest of her childhood. I need to bite my tongue when I am tempted to say something that might squelch her enthusiasm or undervalue the attributes that are somehow inherent to her– God-given, inborn, her very own, still a question mark with their own mysterious potential. They are still in their raw, six year-old form, still undeveloped, and could go in many different directions, play out in many different ways. I am trying to take the long view– to let go of her, to not insist that she be like me, conform to my tastes. I need to give her space and freedom and safety.

And it helps to remember that I am in fact similar to her in one fundamental way: that I too am always looking for that niche in the day that will allow me to do something creative, not dutiful.

I guess I had a lot to say. I was not expecting to write this much today. As I write this, she is moving furniture to make a puppet show for me. She added eyes to two apple slices and they are having a conversation.

Esme, you who are always running up to me giving me cards, drawings, and messages, this is my love note to you, and it says:

I promise to support you as best I can, all the way, whatever you are going to do and to become. I hope that the right opportunities come along for you at the right time and that I and your dad can recognize them when they do, as they surely will. That is my big hope and prayer for you. And one day you can visit me in my reclusive old age (preferably in the mountains) and tell me about all that you are doing in the big, broad world. 

Right after writing this I went into the playroom and found these
scattered on the floor. A book in the making.

Also gathered from the floor of the playroom today: a mermaid on a rock. But what I really like is the elephant-shaped cloud.
This was the planning she did in September 2012 for her birthday party.  Clockwise: Freeze Tag; Duck Duck Goose; Red Rover Send Someone Right Over; cut-out ribbons to award to the winners; Three Legged Race. Thankfully Jeff took over this part of the part because as soon as I saw this, I wanted to curl up and take a nap.

This came home in her backpack one day. Question: What is something that you would like to see the library have that we do not have at this time? Answer: swimming pool.

Replica of cat greeting card. 

This was drawn on an oversized drawing pad. I asked her to title it and she offered: “The Flower and the Feet.” 

A big-hearted letter to her teacher, salvaged from the kitchen counter, with grease spots: “I like you, Ms. (Name). I think you’re a great teacher.  It is fun having you as a teacher. I think your teaching is really helping the class. I like you. You are great.”
A card she made for her sister, with some pretty cute deer.
A Halloween painting.
Portrait of our family. 

Putting together a book about color. 
Posted in: Photo Friday
  1. Christy
    January 31, 2013

    You have an amazing ability to not only write beautifully but also write with a certain…flow, I'd guess you call it. (beautiful writing and easy-to-read writing often don't go hand-in-hand.) I loved every word of this, and the photos. My 4 yr old boy is a lovely mix of introversion and extroversion but he always talks 3 times more loudly than needed (at least it most seems so in the mornings, when my head is still thick with sleep).

  2. Julia
    January 31, 2013

    Thank you, Christy.